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UK trade – an overview

The UK is at a turning point in its international trading relationships, and this poses both risks and opportunities for animal welfare.

On this page, you can find out the latest situation, what is at stake, and what Compassion's campaigners and supporters are doing to help protect farm animal welfare in new UK Free Trade Agreements (FTAs).

Why is trade an issue now?

As a result of the UK leaving the European Union (EU), the country is now able to set its own trade policy for the first time in almost 50 years. Previously these policies were determined at EU level, although the UK was involved in decision-making, alongside the other Member States.

Setting trade policy includes determining rules on which food products can be imported. And, whilst the UK's farming standards could certainly be improved, its legal baselines are higher than most other countries.

What are the choices facing the UK?

Since leaving the EU, the UK has two options:

  1. HM Government could choose to require certain products to meet UK legal standards in order for them to be imported. This would prevent UK farmers from being undercut, and leave open the possibility of further improving domestic animal welfare legislation.
  2. Alternatively, the UK could opt to lower the bar for imported products, increasing pressure to lower domestic standards, and potentially taking the country into a 'race to the bottom', where it seeks to compete only on price rather than food quality and animal welfare.

The choice the Government makes could have a more significant impact on the UK's standards of animal welfare, food safety, and environmental protection than its decisions in any other single policy area. And the ramifications could be felt for decades to come.

The Government's approach will help determine the food UK citizens eat; affect the livelihoods of higher welfare farmers within the UK; and, crucially, influence the wellbeing of animals throughout the UK and beyond.

Is Northern Ireland a Special Case?

Yes. The Northern Ireland Protocol means that Northern Ireland remains subject to European Union trading rules – particularly in terms of animals and food products – and therefore outside any other arrangements that are made for Britain. This means Northern Irish consumers, farmers and animals will be affected by future EU decisions on animal welfare but may be less impacted by the risks and opportunities of new UK FTAs – although details of how this will work remain to be clarified.

What is the UK Government's position?

The UK Government has repeatedly said the country will not see its animal welfare standards diluted on departure from the EU.

Indeed, when Michael Gove was Defra Secretary of State, he committed to the UK being a global leader on animal welfare. And the 2019 Conservative Manifesto stated: "In all our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare, and food standards."

What is more, in February 2021, the Secretary of State for International Trade restated this promise in the House of Commons. Liz Truss said: "I have been very clear that in every trade deal we sign, we will not lower our excellent standards... and we will not expose our farmers to unfair competition."

These commitments were most welcome. However, as things stand, the Government's actions on trade have done more to undermine than support this pledge to uphold UK standards.

Tariffs

The Government has proposed using 'dual tariffs' as a means of protecting animal welfare and environmental standards. Tariffs are effectively taxes that are placed on goods entering a market. The Government's proposal would involve charging higher import tariffs for products that don't meet UK standards and a lower rate for those that do.

However, tariffs should be one of a host of mechanisms used to protect standards, not the only one. Not least because they are a starting point, rather than an endpoint, for any trade negotiations. Once the principle has been accepted that low welfare, low quality food can be imported, even with a high tariff, there will be steady pressure to reduce the tariff over time.

The solution to this situation would be legislation that prevents certain products from being imported under the terms of any FTA – but the UK Government has resisted legal measures at every turn.

Legislation

Two new pieces of legislation with a direct impact upon UK farming and animal welfare have recently passed through Parliament. These offered the Government an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to protecting UK standards in trade deals. However, they repeatedly blocked attempts to ensure that the Agriculture Act 2020 and the Trade Act 2021 provided sufficient protection for the UK's higher welfare farmers or its animals.

The Agriculture Act...

Replaces the EU's area-based farming subsidy scheme (the Common Agricultural Policy) with payments for farmers who deliver on issues such as animal welfare and the environment – a shift in priorities welcomed by Compassion.

However, there is a major risk that the benefits of this new approach will be entirely undermined by future trade deals because, due to Government resistance, the same Act does not require food imports to meet UK legal standards.

Under pressure from campaigners, including Compassion, the Government did offer Parliament a modest increase in its scrutiny of trade agreements. As a result, the Act requires the Government to report on whether, or to what extent, a new FTA undermines UK animal welfare, food, and environmental standards.

But, whilst this is a step in the right direction, it does not offer the same safeguards as a legal prohibition of imports of products not raised to UK standards. Indeed, it suggests the Government can permit those imports and then merely submit a report to Parliament stating why it has chosen to do so.

The Trade Act...

Focuses more on rolling over FTAs that the UK was party to because of prior EU membership.

This Act also offered the opportunity to secure protections against lower standard imports. It could have ensured that Parliament was fully involved in setting out the negotiating position, scrutinising and then ratifying FTAs. But, again, this was opposed by the Government.

There was, once more, some modest progress in terms of scrutiny. In this case, the Government offered two minimal concessions during the last stages of the debate. It promised:

  • An increased role for parliamentary committees before negotiations: Where a relevant committee has sought a debate on a new deal's negotiation objectives, a debate for Lords (but not MPs) will be provided.
  • Debates for both Houses after negotiations: These will be provided, within the existing 21 sitting day scrutiny period, if requested by committees.

The Government has also placed the independent Trade and Agriculture Commission (TAC), which will review FTAs, on a statutory footing (to be reviewed every three years). But, whilst this is a welcome step, it appears that the membership of the Committee – particularly in the areas of animal welfare, food, and the environment – will remain narrow and be composed predominantly of farming bodies.

Additionally, the new TAC has yet to be established, and the Department for International Trade has yet to respond to the recommendations of the original Commission (published in early March 2021). Yet, the Department continues to negotiate, and even agree, FTAs in the absence of the scrutiny the Government promised. 

Meanwhile, following lobbying by Compassion and other organisations, the House of Lords twice voted in support of an amendment to the Trade Bill that would have required food imports to meet UK standards. However, this amendment was twice overturned by the Government in the House of Commons.

In sum, despite pledging to protect UK animal welfare standards in trade deals, the Government has repeatedly refused to introduce legal protection for animals, farmers, and consumers against lower standard imports, and resisted thorough, meaningful scrutiny of FTAs.

Speaking up for animals

What is Compassion calling for?

Compassion is working, through both public campaigning and political lobbying, to speak up for animals at this pivotal moment in the UK's international trading relationships.

Our goal is to ensure the country seizes the opportunities, and avoids the risks, presented by new trade agreements, in order to maintain and improve animal welfare.

Our basic position is that, when negotiating FTAs, the UK must not permit the import of meat, eggs and dairy products that are produced to lower animal welfare standards than those of the UK.

Legislation

The UK has a considerable body of legislation on the welfare of farm animals. Many of the countries with which the UK is seeking an FTA do not. Indeed, in some cases, they have almost none.

We believe the UK should resist calls for 'regulatory coherence' with countries that have lower welfare standards. Not least because, when there are no regulations to align with, 'coherence' is likely to mean a race to the bottom. If nations with lower standards seek a level playing field, it will make it very difficult for the UK to adopt good new legislation on farm animal welfare, and may well create pressure on the UK to dilute its existing standards.

Compassion therefore worked tirelessly to try to ensure that the Agriculture Bill and Trade Bill protected animals.

Compassion representatives gave evidence to Parliamentary Committees, engaged with individual MPs and members of the House of Lords, and provided briefings as the Bills proceeded through Parliament.

As a result, important amendments were tabled to both Bills. These amendments would have prevented the Government from striking FTAs that permitted the import of products from animals reared to lower standards than those of the UK.

Compassion supporters also lobbied their MPs to vote in support of these amendments, and 77,000 people signed an open letter to the Prime Minister, demanding that animal welfare standards be protected in law.

However, despite strong cross-party support for legal protection for animals, farmers and consumers – and positive votes in the House of Lords – the Government ultimately voted down all amendments on food import standards to both the Agriculture and Trade Bills.

As a result, higher welfare British farmers and their animals remain inadequately protected by legislation from the threat of competition from lower welfare imports.

Tariffs

Compassion is opposed to tariffs on lower welfare goods as the only means of protecting animals, farmers and consumers because:

  • It is difficult to ensure that any tariff is sufficiently high to effectively keep a product permanently off the supermarket shelves.
  • There is likely to be pressure to remove or reduce tariffs during FTA negotiations. A point demonstrated very clearly in recent negotiations with Australia.
  • Parliament has no mechanism to challenge the tariffs that the executive lodges with the World Trade Organization (or amendments by the Government to existing tariffs). So, over a period of time, the Government could choose to gradually reduce these tariffs – potentially to zero. This, of course, would then offer no protection against low standard imports.

FTA negotiations

In the absence of robust legislation, and the inadequacy of a tariff-based approach to protecting UK standards, our attention must turn to individual trade negotiations.

We are therefore urging the UK Government to insist on the inclusion of a clause in each FTA, requiring imports to meet UK animal welfare standards.

Such clauses are likely to meet with resistance – particularly from negotiators in countries with large agricultural industries. However, we believe the UK should treat this as a red line in all trade negotiations, to ensure that any FTA does not put downward pressure on existing UK standards and supports opportunities for the UK to improve its animal welfare in future.

Scrutiny

Modern trade agreements affect huge swathes of public policy, including food standards and animal welfare. So, it is critical that trade deals are developed with democratic support and that MPs have the power to scrutinise and vote on trade agreements.

Compassion has therefore been calling for Parliament to be given greater oversight of the way trade agreements are negotiated and ratified. Yet, despite a number of amendments to the Trade Bill that called on the Government to improve scrutiny of trade negotiations, they made only minor concessions, and have resisted all attempts to give Parliament a meaningful say in UK trade policy.

As a result, Parliamentarians currently have no say in setting the negotiating objectives for any FTAs. Plus, the role of Parliament in monitoring trade negotiations is extremely limited, as is their power to reject an FTA.

This absence of parliamentary influence makes public scrutiny all the more important, and we will be following each FTA negotiation, every step of the way.

Your support

We will continue to lobby parliament as each FTA is negotiated, and to call for ongoing public support in the fight to protect farm animals. In the meantime, we would like to thank everyone who has taken a stand in this campaign so far.

Firstly, a huge thank you to to the amazing 77,000 people who signed our open letter to the Prime Minister, calling on him to protect animal welfare in trade deals.

The signatories to the letter included high profile supporters like Emma Milne, fellow vets Marc Abraham and James Greenwood, actors Mike Beckingham and Emma Kennedy, and Compassion patrons Jerome Flynn and Deborah Meaden.

On Tuesday 8th December 2020 we held a virtual event featuring MPs, Emma Milne, and Compassion volunteers, to honour all those who signed and to send a united message to the Government: the UK must not import cruelty.

You can watch the recording of the event on YouTube.

Additionally, Compassion's dedicated army of supporters has backed the call for legislation to protect animal welfare at every opportunity. Over 18,000 emails were sent to MPs about the Agriculture Bill and a further 17,000 emails were sent on the wider issue of animal welfare standards in trade deals.

These actions have helped to keep the issue of FTAs in the public eye and on political agendas throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. They also helped to convince many MPs to support stronger measures against low welfare imports and to identify clear champions for the defence of animal welfare standards in Parliament.

Keep an eye on this page for actions you can take as trade agreements are struck, to help protect farm animals and stop a race to the bottom on standards.

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United for animals

On 8th December 2020, high profile supporters, MPs and Compassion volunteers come together to demand protection for animals in UK trade deals.

5. United for animals

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Concluded trade deals – impacts for animals?

The UK has already struck several post-Brexit trade deals. An overview of the animal welfare implications of these agreements is provided below. Additional information will be added to this section when further deals are struck.

After many years of negotiation, the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement1 was struck and ratified in December 2020.

EU and UK legislation on animal welfare is, largely, identical. However, the trade deal that has been negotiated is still something of a mixed bag for farm animals.

On the positive side:

  • The deal does not prevent the UK from implementing a ban on the live export of animals for slaughter or fattening (although the Northern Ireland Protocol means it would be challenging to implement a ban across the Irish border, should this be desired).
  • The agreement ensures tariff-free, quota-free trade in all farm products and many processed products. This means the level of farm imports originating from the EU can be maintained, given that animal products from third countries (most often produced to lower animal welfare standards) will not become cheaper than EU products.
  • The UK is now able to replace the Common Agricultural Policy with its own system of farm subsidies, recognising the need to use public money to support public goods. This includes making it possible for the UK Government to divert resources to support higher animal welfare standards. There are already proposals on the table on this topic, and others are expected – for example, on the method of production labelling.
  • The UK-EU deal also specifically references areas where the Parties will work together on farm animal welfare, particularly related to the "breeding, holding, handling, transportation and slaughter of food-producing animals."
  • The deal recognises animals as sentient beings. This is also welcome, yet somewhat at odds with the UK Government position. Its failure to introduce a version of Article 13 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU means that animals are no longer recognised as sentient beings in UK law.
  • There is also a section recognising that the misuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture is a threat to human and animal health. However, it is unclear what progress this will lead to on the ground, as regards the overuse of antibiotics in intensive farming systems.

On the negative side:

Disappointingly, however, the UK-EU agreement does not list animal welfare in its chapter on a 'Level Playing Field', and provisions on animal welfare cooperation do not include a commitment to non-regression.

Whilst in some FTAs the inclusion of a level playing field may be of concern (such as in an FTA with the USA), a commitment to this in the agreement with the EU could have prevented any backsliding in UK animal welfare standards. This is because much of the UK's animal welfare law is derived from EU law, and both have similar, comparatively high standards.

Conversely, the lack of such a commitment means the UK could set animal welfare standards lower than those of the EU, or vice versa. And neither Party will be able to use tariffs to claim back any cost disadvantages from lower animal welfare standards, should these standards diverge and impact trade.

Additionally, whilst the absence of tariffs could ensure that most exports of animal products from the UK  will not drop abruptly, additional checks, paperwork, and bureaucracy ('non-tariff barriers') do now apply for any animals or food products leaving Great Britain for the EU. This could, in spite of the deal, still impact trade – potentially decreasing demand for British animal products (which could lead to the culling of animals in the impacted sectors) and causing delays in transit for any animals leaving the country.

Moreover, as with other trade deals, the UK Government has secured to date, the EU deal fails to give the UK the right to refuse to import meat, eggs, and dairy produced to lower animal welfare standards. This is a missed opportunity because, for example, the UK could have insisted that imported pork must come from herds that do not use sow stalls (as is required of UK pig farmers.)

The first new post-Brexit deal the UK negotiated was the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement with Japan.2

Although this was largely a rollover of an existing EU-Japan deal, the UK Government did seek to make changes in certain areas. Frustratingly, however, the agreement did not match up to the Government's rhetoric on protecting animal welfare standards:

  • The language contained within the FTA relating to animal welfare is short and meaningless.
  • There does not appear to be anything within the agreement which permits the UK to reject the import of products that are not produced to UK standards.
  • Some elements of the agreement could also have a chilling effect in respect of the UK adopting stronger animal welfare regulations in the future. For example, the "exchange of information on planned or existing regulatory measures" would require the UK Government to notify Japan of any changes to domestic legislation. This could be seen as onerous – leading UK Ministers to determine it is more straightforward to simply not make changes to legislation in the first place.

For more information, read a comprehensive briefing on the UK-Japan FTA, sent by Compassion to members of both Houses of Parliament.

In November 2020, the UK and Canada reached agreement to roll over the provisions of the existing EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement ("CETA")3, with both Parties aiming to negotiate a more 'tailor-made' UK-Canada deal in 2021.

Compassion has a number of concerns regarding the existing EU-Canada deal, and the roll-over of this agreement does not allay our ongoing fears about protecting farm animal welfare standards. In particular:

  • The original agreement on which the UK-Canada deal is based does not provide assurance that EU animal welfare standards will be upheld or specify that imports from Canada must meet EU legal requirements.
  • The EU-Canada deal requires the Parties "to ensure that their technical regulations are compatible with one another." Yet Canada's regulatory standards on farm animal welfare are substantially lower than those of the UK or EU. There is no Canadian federal legislation on animal welfare besides basic anti-cruelty provisions, and few public health rules concerning animals. The strength of animal welfare law at the provincial level also varies greatly. The divergent regulatory approaches of the EU and Canada to animal welfare will make it difficult for the EU to adopt good new animal welfare legislation and could place downward pressure on existing measures. When re-negotiating its trade agreement with Canada the UK could find itself in a similar position, potentially resulting in standards being lower than if there were no obligation to achieve regulatory cooperation.
  • CETA notes animal welfare only once (Art. 21.4.s) and, worryingly, the UK-Canada interim agreement does not make a single reference to animal welfare.
  • Under CETA, compliance with animal welfare standards cannot be checked upon import of animal products. And, in the name of making trade easier, CETA dismantles EU inspections and audits in Canadian production facilities. As a result, given the contrast in legislation between the EU and Canada, it is clear that the risk of importing lower-standard products is high. This is a risk the UK continues to face, and one that must be addressed in any future negotiations between the two nations.
  • Similar to CETA, the UK-Canada agreement permits the tariff-free import of significant amounts of bison meat, beef, veal, and pork. This would potentially allow UK farmers to be undercut by lower standard imports.
  • As with a number of other nations the UK Government is prioritising trade agreements, Canada uses significantly larger quantities of antibiotics in its agricultural production – with associated threats to both animal and human health. A 2020 report by the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics4 found that overall farm antibiotic use per animal is about five times higher in Canada than in the UK.

What could future deals mean for animals?

The UK Government is known to be actively pursuing, or keen to strike, FTAs with many countries around the world. This section highlights the key risks and opportunities for UK food, animal welfare and environmental standards presented by some of these potential trade deals. Additional information and countries will be added as negotiations progress.

With the election of President Biden and his focus on domestic issues as a priority, talk of a trade deal between the UK and the USA has dropped down the agenda in recent months. However, the UK Government remains keen to secure a UK-US FTA, and it seems likely that talks will resume at some point – although perhaps in the 2nd half of Biden's first term in office.

The possibility of a trade deal with the USA gives rise to a number of concerns regarding animal welfare standards.

Beef

Concerns about the import of hormone-treated beef have been widely publicised in the UK. However, the problems with US beef are not limited to the use of growth-promoting hormones. US cattle are usually kept in feedlots for the last few months of their lives. Feedlots confine thousands of cattle in crowded, often dirty conditions. If imports of beef from US feedlots are permitted, they will undercut UK pasture-based beef farmers on price.

Pork

Ractopamine is a beta-agonist feed additive used to promote growth in pigs. Its use is permitted in the US but prohibited in the UK, and there is evidence that it has a detrimental impact on the behaviour5 and welfare6 of pigs.

Pork imported from the US is also likely to come from herds where sows are confined in narrow stalls during pregnancy. The use of sow stalls has been illegal in the UK since 1999, due to concerns about animal welfare.

Dairy products

BST (bovine somatotropin) is a genetically engineered lactation-promoting hormone that is injected into cows in the US to increase milk yields.

The use of BST is prohibited in the UK on animal welfare grounds. Imported US dairy products from BST-treated cows would undercut UK farmers on price.

Chicken meat and egg products

The import to the UK of chicken washed in chlorine or other chemical disinfectants has rightly caused concern, as such treatments are used to mask unhygienic conditions in production, slaughter, and processing. These conditions are often associated with low welfare, highly intensive chicken farming.

Additionally, whilst the use of barren battery cages for hens is banned in the UK, they are used in most US states. Although fresh eggs are unlikely to be imported from the USA, in the UK 21% of eggs are used as product ingredients, often in the form of whole egg powder. At present, US egg powder imports are discouraged by high tariffs, but the US is likely to oppose the inclusion of such tariffs in any trade agreement. This may well result in egg powder coming into the UK from hens kept in barren cages in the USA, undermining domestic farmers.

Antibiotics

Antibiotics are given to farm animals at much higher levels in the USA than in the UK. In terms of mg of the active ingredient of antibiotic per tonne of livestock unit (PCU)7:

  • Total antibiotic use in US farm animals is more than five times higher than in UK farm animals.
  • Antibiotic use in US cattle is about 8-9 times that in UK cattle.
  • US antibiotic use in both pigs and chickens is more than double that in UK animals.
  • Antibiotic use in US turkeys is about nine times higher than that in the UK.

Regulatory coherence

In any trade agreement with the UK, the US is likely to press for the inclusion of a clause intended to align regulatory standards on the farming, transport, and slaughter of animals. This would be worrying, as US regulations on farm animal welfare are generally substantially lower than those in the UK.

Indeed, the US has no federal regulations at all in many areas. There is no federal legislation governing the welfare of animals while they are on a farm. And, although there are provisions on slaughter, these do not cover poultry and are much less detailed than UK legislation. Similarly, regulations on transport are much less detailed and demanding than UK legislation.

Meanwhile, whilst the UK has banned barren battery cages for hens, sow stalls, and veal crates, there is no US federal ban on these systems – although 12 states have prohibited one or all of these systems.

In the light of all these threats, Compassion believes it is vital for any FTA with the US to prevent imports of food that has not been produced to UK standards.

Read our full briefing on the threats posed by a UK-US Free Trade Agreement.

The UK has recently reached an 'Agreement in Principle' on a trade deal with Australia which could put animal welfare standards at risk.

Around 40% of the beef produced in Australia comes from cows fattened in feedlots, where the animals spend months in intensive conditions, fed largely on grain rather than grazing on pasture.

As with the USA, antibiotic use in Australian agriculture is also high. A recent report by the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics8 found that use per animal in poultry is over 16 times higher in Australia than in the UK, whilst for pigs, it is nearly three times higher.

In addition, several practices prohibited in the UK are permitted in Australia. These include mulesing (removing parts of the skin from live sheep), confining hens in barren cages, and keeping pregnant sows in stalls.

Despite these crucial differences in animal welfare standards between the two nations, there has been little indication so far that the proposed trade deal will require imports from Australia to meet UK animal welfare standards.

And, crucially, the Australian Government has announced9 that, during the first year of the deal, tens of thousands of tonnes of Australian meat would be allowed into the UK, tariff-free. Then the quotas would grow, year-on-year, until tariffs are totally eliminated.

Based on the evidence to date, the UK-Australian FTA looks set to break the UK Government's promises to protect animal welfare standards in trade deals. It could undermine higher welfare farming in the UK and encourage lower welfare practices in Australia – threatening the wellbeing of animals in both nations.

We are also concerned that concessions in the deal with Australia, may form a precedent for the US talks. It is vital that an Australian deal does not act as a Trojan horse, paving the way for the UK's higher standards to be undermined in the potentially much larger US FTA.

You can find out more about these issues in our briefing on the UK-Australia FTA.

SPEAK OUT: Please help protect animals by taking action against the UK-Australian trade deal.

References and further reading

References

  1. UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement; Accessed 3 February 2021
  2. UK/Japan Agreement for a Comprehensive Economic Partnership; Accessed 3 February 2021
  3. Agreement on Trade Continuity between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Canada; Accessed 3 February 2021
  4. Farm Antibiotics and Trade Deals; Alliance to Save our Antibiotics, 2020; Accessed 3 February 2021 
  5. Poletto et al, 2007; Behavioural Effects of "Step-Up" Ractopamine Feeding Program on Finishing Pigs; Proceedings of the 41st Congress of the International Society for Applied Ethology (Merida, Mexico), p. 90
  6. Polleto et al, 2009; Effects of a 'step-up' ractopamine feeding programme, sex, and social rank on growth performance, hoof lesions, and Enterobacteriaceae shedding in finished pigs; Journal of Animal Science 87:304-313
  7. US livestock receive more than five times as many antibiotics as British livestock, Alliance to Save our Antibiotics, May 2020
  8. Farm Antibiotics and Trade Deals; Alliance to Save our Antibiotics, 2020; Accessed 3 February 2021
  9. New free trade agreement to deliver jobs and business opportunities in Australia and The United Kingdom; Australian Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, 15 June 2021; Accessed 21 June 2021

Further reading

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If you have any further questions regarding this, or any other matter, please get in touch with us at supporters@ciwf.org.uk. We aim to respond to all queries within two working days. However, due to the high volume of correspondence that we receive, it may occasionally take a little longer. Please do bear with us if this is the case. Alternatively, if your query is urgent, you can contact our Supporter Engagement Team on +44 (0)1483 521 953 (lines open Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm).