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Animals (Recognition of Sentience)

Volume 657: debated on Wednesday 3 April 2019

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to impose a duty on public bodies in relation to the welfare needs of animals as sentient beings.

Back in November 2017, I added my name to an amendment to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill tabled by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). New clause 30 called for the EU protocol on animal sentience, as set out in the Lisbon treaty, to be recognised in domestic law post-Brexit. As every Member knows, animal welfare issues are always popular with constituents, and this was no exception. There was a mass email campaign and vocal support from non-governmental organisations. It was clear that the public wanted the reassurance of including it in the Bill.

The Government, for reasons best known to themselves, were less enthused and tried to argue that the concept of animals as sentient beings was already enshrined in English law, but the backlash was fierce. There was a lot of press coverage suggesting that Government Members had voted in the belief that animals cannot feel pain, which was slightly unfair, but the public were clearly unhappy.

Forced to act, the Government tabled the three-clause draft Animal Welfare (Sentencing and Recognition of Sentience) Bill in December 2017. This was the Government promising the House that they would legislate. Indeed, the Prime Minister also said that. The Government were promising that they would legislate before Brexit day, which we thought at the time would be 29 March 2019.

The consultation on the draft Bill closed on 31 January 2018, and the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, on which I sit, carried out pre-legislative scrutiny and recommended splitting the Bill so that the largely uncontroversial sentencing provision could be dealt with separately. I am not focusing on the sentencing provision today, but I genuinely do not understand why the Government have not been able to act in the intervening period to increase maximum jail sentences for animal cruelty from six months to five years—it would take a day of parliamentary time and it has public support. The Government purport to support it, too, so why not treat animal cruelty with the severity under law that it deserves?

It was not until August 2018 that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs got round to publishing the outcome of the consultation on the draft Bill, having apparently been overwhelmed by the public response, with over 9,000 direct submissions and another 64,000 from 38 Degrees members.

DEFRA took on board the Select Committee’s recommendation to split the Bill, but since then we have had nothing. Just warm words and a lukewarm promise to legislate. In October 2018, the Secretary of State told the Tory conference:

“Animals are our fellow sentient beings. They show loyalty and devotion, and they know pleasure and pain.”

In February, at the “A Better Deal for Animals” parliamentary reception, which brought together 36 of the UK’s largest and most effective animal protection organisations, he said:

“Animals are sentient beings who feel pain and suffering, so it is absolutely right that we recognise this in UK law after we leave the EU”.

Just last week, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), who has responsibility for animal welfare and I am glad to see in his place, told the EFRA Committee that the Government were committed to legislating “as soon as possible” and were “looking for a vehicle” to bring this forward. Today, I am providing that vehicle for the Government, and if the Minister wants to take over from me in the driving seat, I would be more than happy for him to do so.

Turning to the detail of what I am proposing, the Bill recognises animal sentience and ensures that all vertebrates, cephalopods and decapods, including crustaceans, octopuses and squid, are legally defined as sentient beings. It also includes a mechanism for the list to be expanded in the future, based on the latest science. Aristotle once described the octopus as a “stupid creature”, but we now know that that is far from the case—indeed, sometimes I think it is far more intelligent than quite a lot of us. To be clear, recognising sentience is about recognising that animals are capable of experiencing pain and suffering, that they have welfare needs and that Government policies should, to the greatest possible extent, and taking into account other policy needs, result in a good life for the animals concerned.

My Bill creates a framework for a mandatory process by which the Government and public bodies will implement and report against the sentience duty. Specifically, it will establish an independent animal welfare advisory committee; provide a mechanism for informed assessment of animal welfare impact risk, taking into consideration the specific welfare needs of the species affected, weighed against other public policy needs; provide animal welfare guidance to Departments, as well as a triage process to allow Departments to prioritise resources for risk assessments on those policies with the potential to cause the greatest harm to the greatest number of animals; require full transparency from the Government, in real time, on assessments undertaken, policy options considered and reasons for the choice of the final policy option and so on; and provide a mechanism for public consultation. There is more in the Bill on reporting and reviews that I will not go into now.

The creation of an animal welfare advisory committee is fundamental, as it would issue guidance on how the animal sentience principles should be interpreted and applied, and ensure that the duty is discharged. It is clear to me that no existing body could undertake this role effectively or adequately replace the current advice of EU institutions. To perform this function, the committee will need: to have an open, transparent recruitment process; to include independent members with appropriately wide-ranging specialist perspectives and expertise, in both animal welfare and ethical review; to be able to co-opt additional expertise as required; to be able to liaise with stakeholders and respect their views; to be transparent in its advice; and to include a mechanism to take representations, including concerns and complaints, from the public.

The reality is that if we do not legislate for this now, there is a risk: that imports of lower-welfare animal products could be permitted under new trade deals; that developers may not have to consider the impact of new roads, housing or major infrastructure projects on wildlife in the area; that the UK could, through its overseas aid or trade programmes, invest in the kind of intensive farming systems that are not allowed in the UK because of animal welfare concerns; and that it would be more difficult to take action against inhumane wildlife management practices and wildlife crime. Those are just a few examples.

As the Minister knows, there is widespread support for enshrining sentience in UK law. Since February alone, almost 70,000 people have signed the parliamentary petition to recognise it in law, and 101 Members from across this House have signed early-day motion 2070. I want to thank organisations such as Wildlife and Countryside Link, World Animal Protection, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Humane Society International, Compassion in World Farming and the splendidly named Crustacean Compassion for their support and assistance with this Bill and their campaigning.

We pride ourselves in this country on our strong record on animal welfare, and we are right to do so, but we should never be complacent. There are many examples where we could and should do better. There are pressures on us, economic and global, that could lead us to backslide. We should always be vigilant and guard against that. I know that some, a minority, still question whether this Bill is needed. Some people want greater licence to ignore animal welfare concerns, whether that be so that they can cram animals into ever-more intensive and industrialised farming systems, or so that they can pursue so-called “country sports”. The fact is that this Government promised this legislation. Indeed, they staved off a major Commons defeat—and no doubt there would have also been defeat in the Lords—with that promise. That was back in November 2017. It is now time for the Government to keep their promise to this House and to the British people, and to back my Bill.

Question put and agreed to.


That Kerry McCarthy, Darren Jones, Daniel Zeichner, Alex Cunningham, Henry Smith, Sir Roger Gale, Bob Blackman, Caroline Lucas, Ben Lake, Mr Alistair Carmichael and Dr Lisa Cameron present the Bill.

Kerry McCarthy accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 5 April, and to be printed (Bill 375 .)