I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 242239 relating to the sentience and welfare of animals.
It is a genuine pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Roger, because I know how committed you have been to animal welfare over many years in Parliament. I am sure that if you were not in the Chair, you would be speaking in favour of the petition—I hope that is not slightly presumptuous of me.
There is widespread support for introducing the recognition of animal sentience, as enshrined in article 13 of the Lisbon treaty, into UK law. Nearly 104,000 people signed the petition that led to this debate, and 43 organisations are backing the Better Deal for Animals campaign. I have only just joined the Petitions Committee, and this is the first petition I am speaking in favour of, but it is a real privilege to be able to debate it because we have been pushing for it for such a long time. I have taken part in Petitions Committee debates as a Back Bencher and been slightly frustrated that the person moving the petition has not been fully on board with the sentiments behind it, but I can assure the petitioners that I very much agree with what the petition asks for.
I will explain later why the sentiment behind the petition is so important, but I want to retrace the journey that has led us to today’s debate. Back in November 2017—well over two years ago—I added my name to a new clause to the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill that was 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. For some reason, the Government did not want to accept new clause 30; various reasons were given at the time.
However, in the face of a mass email campaign from the public—those of us who were Members back then will remember that it was a massive campaign—and vocal support from charities and NGOs, the Government clearly had to do something. They promised to legislate separately, and the draft Animal Welfare (Sentencing and Recognition of Sentience) Bill 2017—all three clauses of it—was published in December 2017 and put out for consultation. It is fair to say that the sentience provision, which was only one clause, was flawed, as we heard when we took evidence about it on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. The consultation closed at the end of January 2018, but it was not until August 2018 that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs got around to publishing the outcome. The only excuse I have heard for the delay is that the Department had been absolutely overwhelmed by the scale of the public response. That was in August 2018, and nothing has happened.
When questioned about the lack of action, one Minister told me that the Department wanted to legislate on sentience. We heard all the usual things about the lack of parliamentary time; again, however, those of us who were in the last Parliament know there was an awful lot of time when we were sitting around doing very little, and it would have been pretty easy to get a very short Bill through Parliament. The Minister did say to me at one point that the Department was looking for a suitable vehicle to introduce legislation, so I provided one. With help from animal welfare organisations, I tabled a ten-minute rule Bill in April 2019, hoping it would spur the Government to action, but it did not. In fact, I have heard that a draft Bill was produced in July 2019 and circulated across Departments. I have heard, too, that it has been shown to animal welfare campaign groups. I have some inkling of what might be in it, but I have not actually seen it. Still, it is progress of some sort.
Since July 2019, when that mysterious Bill was perhaps put into circulation, we have had two Queen’s Speeches—in October and December—and there was no mention of the Bill in either. Despite the Government’s assurances way back in November 2017 that they would legislate before Brexit, we have now left the EU, with no legislation in place. Indeed, the animal sentience provision is one of the only provisions that were not carried over and incorporated into UK legislation when we left the EU on 31 January 2020, and the measure needs to be in place by 1 January 2021. Clearly, we are starting to run out of time.
If we do not legislate now, there are a number of risks. For example, the import of lower-welfare animal products could be permitted under new trade deals. That is something that I, the Minister and others, including my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), thrashed out in some detail in the Agriculture Bill—some of us for the second time. It is an important issue for animal sentience. Another issue is that developers might not have to consider the impact of new roads, housing or major infrastructure projects on wildlife in the area. Through its overseas aid or trade programmes, the UK could invest in the kinds of intensive farming systems that are not allowed in the UK because of animal welfare concerns. It would be more difficult to take action against inhumane wildlife management practices and wildlife crime.
I find the Government’s reluctance to act utterly bewildering. They are very keen to talk about how we have the highest animal welfare standards in the world; introducing legislation would simply be a way to underpin them. There is widespread consensus around this issue—not just in the House—and it is fair to say that new clause 30 would have passed if it had been put to a vote back in late 2017. Most people agree with the then Secretary of State for DEFRA, who said in October 2018 that:
“Animals are our fellow sentient beings. They show loyalty and devotion, and they know pleasure and pain.”
In a real display of irony before he took up his post, the current Secretary of State even chastised the US for its position on this issue, saying they displayed a backward
“resistance to even acknowledging the existence of sentience in farm animals.”
I turn to the Bill—to the extent that I can, given that we do not actually have one in front of us. Many of us feel that the Government should have a positive duty, not a negative duty, to pay all due regard to the welfare needs of animals as sentient beings when formulating and implementing policies. It should not just be about ensuring that no pain or suffering is caused to animals, but about considering the five freedoms and ensuring they have happy, healthy and fulfilled lives. The Bill should provide for animal welfare assessments to be prospective, not retrospective: any report to Parliament involving the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee should be done before policy is made, not afterwards. That should apply to all policy areas and to all sentient animals.
I have heard reports that the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government is seeking to be excluded from the Bill’s remit, which could mean that it would not have to pay due regard to matters of animal sentience when giving the go-ahead for planning permission for mega-farms. I think we all feel that the Government should be able to have a say on that beyond the concerns about slurry and local environmental impact, which are used at the moment to prevent things such as the Nocton dairy farm.
Many of us would like to see in the Bill a recognition of the sentience of decapod crustaceans such as crabs and lobsters, and of cephalopods such as cuttlefish, squid and the extremely intelligent octopus. Campaigns are being led by The Shellfish Network and Crustacean Compassion—the Minister is nodding, so I am sure she is aware of them. I have heard that research on whether such creatures are sentient beings has been put out to tender; the closing date is 2 April. The research will be carried out between May and November. Can the Minister tell us why the tender process has been held up for so long? We have been asking for this provision to go in the Bill ever since it was first mooted. If the research does not conclude till November, it will be too late to get the conclusion of that research into a Bill that has to be passed before 31 December.
There also needs to be a power in the Bill to create an animal welfare advisory commission. I understand that the Government support the idea to an extent, but there is no chance of its being established as a non-departmental body. It would instead be within DEFRA, which raises concerns that it would not really have the independence it needs. It would need to be able to advise all Departments, so it is not just a matter for DEFRA. Scotland recently set up its equivalent Animal Welfare Commission, with 12 independent commissioners appointed. Why cannot the UK Government commit to doing likewise?
We pride ourselves in this country on our strong record on animal welfare. As every Member present will know, few campaigns fill our postbags and email inboxes like those focused on animal welfare. However, we cannot be complacent and allow economic pressures to roll our standards back. Some people—a vocal minority—question whether such legislation is needed. Some people want greater licence to ignore animal welfare concerns, either so they can cram animals into ever more intensive and industrialised farming systems, or so they can pursue so-called country sports.
Consecutive Tory Governments have repeatedly promised to recognise animal sentience in law and have been given chance after chance to act and bring forward legislation. The time for excuses has passed; the time for action is now.
It is a great pleasure to serve once again under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and to follow the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who made a very valuable speech.
I believe that animals are sentient beings and fully accept that they feel pain and suffering as well as pleasure. The amount of pleasure that we showed to our dog and that our dog showed to us served as a genuine indication that animals are genuinely sentient beings. However, we also need to consider the issue in the context of UK animal welfare standards, of which I am rightly proud, and of what we have achieved by setting them up. I would certainly pay great attention to that and ask the House to do so as well.
On the hon. Lady’s point about the law, I do not believe that the inclusion of a new clause in the withdrawal Bill was the right way to go about this. It is always convenient to add more and more to Bills until they become nothing more than Christmas trees. That would have been the case in this instance; we could have added endless numbers of things to the Bill. Under existing UK law, animals are already recognised as sentient—I will try to find the reference during my speech. We already recognise in law that animals are sentient creatures, and we should hang on to that firm belief.
I am quite exasperated by the hon. Lady’s mention of trade deals. I am not sure how much more has to be said or written to say that we are not going for cheap trade deals that bring contaminated food into the UK. The matter came up in this Chamber last week, and the Minister in that debate made the point—as indeed, did I—that that has been ruled out for very good reasons. I suggest that we remember that.
I want to raise a couple of concerns about the Government’s response. Finn’s law—the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Act 2019—which, as the hon. Lady will know, was introduced as a private Member’s Bill by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald), is a very good indication of general as well as specific thinking. Specifically, the law ensures that service animals such as police dogs and horses are offered greater protection, which is extremely valuable, and removes a section of self-defence law that is often used by those who want to harm service animals. Finn’s law is indicative of a wider appreciation of animals shown by the Conservative party, and there seems to be agreement across the House that we should show such appreciation. That is a very good indication for the future.
The Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill will increase maximum sentences for animal cruelty offences from six months to five years. That is an appropriate sentence to apply to those who commit such offences. Since some of those issues were first raised with us in 2018, I ask the Minister why not enough has been done in the short term to bring those changes forward. Why are we still having debates like this? Why have we not been presented with Bills so that we can make our commitment plain in debates in the main Chamber? I would be grateful if the Minister responded to that point.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and to follow the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell). Unsurprisingly, I, like many hon. Members, have been inundated with constituents’ emails and letters about animal sentience. We are a nation of animal lovers; nearly half of UK households have pets—we own approximately 51 million pets.
Like us, animals are sentient beings with feelings and emotions, and can also experience suffering and pain. It is crucial that the Government recognise animal sentience and place animal welfare at the heart of their policy agenda. I am proud to belong to a party that prioritises the welfare of animals: the Hunting Act 2004 banned fox hunting, while the Animal Welfare Act 2006 protected the treatment of domestic animals.
This month, the Barnsley Brownies collected food and treat donations for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals animal centre. Their charity badges are well-earned symbols of their compassion and kindness. Programmes such as the RSPCA’s generation kindness project help to teach those important values to schoolchildren and influence how they treat animals and each other. I encourage the Government to recognise the importance of those values.
The national curriculum should contain lessons on how to take care of animals, especially wild animals that have been taken from their natural environment and need to be returned safely and unharmed. No animal should be forced to endure unnecessary suffering. People who purposely harm animals for their own enjoyment, or simply because they believe that the pain of animals is beneath their consideration, should be appropriately punished.
The RSPCA’s 24-hour cruelty line receives, on average, a phone call every 30 seconds. In a single year, more than 1,000 reports were made in Barnsley alone. I have worked closely with the RSPCA in Barnsley and seen at first hand the work it does, particularly when I travelled around the local area with an RSPCA inspector over an afternoon. It is not enough that those convicted of animal cruelty offences receive merely a slap on the wrist. We need tougher sentences to prevent those who might do harm to innocent creatures from doing so. All animals, domestic or wild, should be protected by the same five-year maximum sentence.
I call on the Government to enshrine animal welfare standards in UK law so that public authorities pay attention to animals’ welfare needs as sentient beings when implementing public policy. We need legislation that recognises the sentience of animals, acknowledges their capacity to feel, and commits to protecting them as creatures deserving of respect.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) on having secured not just one debate this afternoon, but two. It is good to see that so many parliamentarians are interested in animal welfare issues, because that certainly never used to be the case. I pay tribute to the hon. Lady, who organised a splendid dinner last week. There are no political divides between us when it comes to our interest in animal welfare measures, although unlike her, I am not a vegan. She has done a splendid job by having secured this afternoon’s two debates.
I was very keen to leave the European Union for all sorts of reasons. I think our animal welfare legislation is perhaps the best in the world. I will not use my brief contribution as an opportunity to attack the farming community, because it faces a number of difficult challenges, but that will not stop me speaking out about animal sentience. I am a proud patron, like you, Sir Roger, of the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation. I have worked very closely with those pushing to recognise animals as the sentient things that they are. Animal welfare is undoubtedly of increasing concern among the general public.
We are in the middle of a crisis; it is a nightmare, like the worst sort of science fiction movie ever. If older people are to be asked to spend more time in their homes, animals will be of enormous importance to them. Scientists have proven that animals are capable of feeling pain. There should be no argument about that. Animals suffer fear and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) said, they experience joy and comfort. Animals have evolved to give themselves the best possible chance of survival. Sentience extends to being able to identify situations that cause harm; for example, mother hens teach their chicks which foods are good to eat.
Over the years, I have been involved in most animal welfare issues, particularly the campaign to stop live exports of animals and put an end to millions of farm animals being forced to endure journeys of hundreds of thousands of miles for slaughter or fattening. I was taken by the fact that the Prime Minister, in perhaps his first speech, said:
“Let’s promote the welfare of animals that has always been so close to the hearts of the British people.”
I am sure his father and partner are a great influence in those matters, so it is good to know that the person in charge of our nation tells us that he regards this as a very high priority. Inhuman practices show a complete disregard for the fact that animals experience the pain, stress and suffering of cruel journeys.
Let me first put on record my interest as a trustee of World Horse Welfare. Does my hon. Friend agree that the very act of transportation causes enormous stress? Although, unlike him, I did not advocate leaving the European Union, this is one area where it could be an advantage, in that it will enable us to prevent the stress that is placed on animals that are transported to the continent.
My right hon. Friend made that point far better than I could, and I totally agree. It is unacceptable that animals are kept in appalling conditions and that the evidence that they experience fear and pain is ignored. As a matter of urgency, industries such as farming must recognise the sentience of animals. They are trying to recognise that and adjust their practices accordingly, but perhaps in the next debate I will be able to enlarge upon that.
The hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) said that we are a nation of animal lovers. Of that there is no doubt. Colleagues on my side of the House have found that people power is influencing our views—the general public feel strongly about this. Although the Animal Welfare Act 2006 acknowledged that animals experience pain and suffering, it did not explicitly recognise animal sentience. Now that we have left the European Union, that should be introduced into legislation. The Minister might argue that it is not necessary, but I remain to be persuaded.
Many parliamentarians were delighted to meet Finn the dog for Finn’s law part two, or the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill, which will increase the maximum sentence for animal cruelty from six months to five years. Finn’s law came into force in June 2019 and put in place protections for service animals, such as police dogs and horses, from violent attacks. It is that sort of legislation that gives the United Kingdom its proud position of leading the way on animal welfare issues. That is why I want us to lead the way and enshrine animal sentience in law.
We have a very high standard in this country, but if we do not take action to legislate on animal sentience, we will put that proud record in jeopardy. I am glad that we have left the European Union, but I want the United Kingdom to influence the rest of the world through our already high standards.
I am pleased to participate in this debate, secured by a petition with over 100,000 signatures, just like the debate on farm animals immediately after this one. I thank the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for her comprehensive opening to the debate. Like probably every Member, I received a huge number of emails from my constituents about this issue, and it is important to give voice to their concerns.
Since being elected in 2015, I cannot recall any animal welfare debate in which I have not participated, from straightforward debates about animal welfare to puppy farming, microchipping cats, bans on ivory sales, the fur trade—the list is endless. Those matters are hugely concerning to those we represent, and the debates matter to them. As we have heard, animal sentience is a self-evident truth for all living creatures. They feel pain, pleasure, distress and fear. It is incumbent on anyone with an ounce of compassion or empathy to recognise that and act on it. As elected representatives, we act on that self-evident truth through legislation to ensure that the welfare of animals is protected to the fullest extent possible. The Scottish Government have recognised the importance of that and acted accordingly.
There is some concern, which has been touched on, about a reduction in animal welfare standards below EU common standards in the wake of Brexit. I know the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) was quite irritated that the issue had come up again, but it does not matter whether this is inconvenient or irritating; the fact is that the fear persists among our constituents. We do well to recognise their fears and address them as best we can. In that spirit, I hope the Minister will tell us that those concerns are completely unfounded and will put to bed the ghost of chlorine-washed chicken, as that is in the public imagination. It does not matter whether that fear is real or imagined; if it persists, it needs to be addressed further. I hope the Minister can assuage those concerns suitably. Perhaps she will tell us what commitments her Government will make to reassure those who are concerned that animal welfare standards might be sacrificed, to whatever extent, during trade negotiations.
Animal welfare is devolved to the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish National party Scottish Government have an excellent record in this area, and in a variety of debates, some of which I listed, I have heard Members across party political lines recognising the SNP’s work. A few months ago, the SNP’s programme for Government set out a range of new animal welfare commitments, not least to maintain EU animal rights standards as a minimum, and that there must be no compromise on or diminution of the standards as trade talks proceed with the US. That is a genuine concern; Tory Back Benchers and Ministers might raise their eyes to heaven in impatience, but these matters are extremely important.
I am particularly pleased that the SNP Scottish Government are set to increase the maximum penalties for the most serious animal welfare offences to five years’ imprisonment and/or unlimited fines, and to make changes to the maximum penalties for various wildlife offences.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is a new Member to the House, and I am sure he is a welcome Member to his friends and colleagues. I am sure he will correct me if I am wrong—I may well be—but I am sure this measure was in the pipeline for the Scottish Government even before he started his selection process. Having said that, I pay tribute to him for bringing this important matter forward to the UK Government, because sadly the SNP’s measures do not apply across the UK. I am sure he will press and persuade his party of Government to do the right thing, and he must be applauded for that.
The hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) can be excused, because he is very new, but we did spend quite a lot of time in the last Parliament debating an increase in animal sentences. I pay tribute in particular to Anna Turley, my former colleague who was Member for Redcar, who, under the guise of Baby’s law—a bulldog in her constituency had been appallingly treated and videoed while he was being abused—did a lot of the work. The new Member may get most of the glory, but I do not want Anna to be forgotten.
I thank the hon. Lady for sharing those points. I say to the hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder)—I will not call him a new Member because we have said that enough—that I have been calling for maximum penalties of five years since I was first elected in 2015, so I have got a wee bit of a head start on him. We support each other in these efforts, because, quite simply, that is the right thing to do.
Another new measure in the Scottish Government’s programme for Government is on slaughterhouses. In Scotland, 80% of slaughterhouses have CCTV fitted, but that will become a requirement for all slaughterhouses under the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Bill. Indeed, the first independent animal welfare commission to be set up will look specifically at how the welfare needs of sentient animals are being met and what legislative and non-legislative measures can be implemented to make improvements, where required, and for animal welfare to proceed on an evidential basis.
I do not think there is any dispute about animals being sentient beings; no one would deny, or seek to deny, that. Therefore, there is a responsibility on all Governments to recognise that comprehensively in policy and practice through legislation. It is as simple as that. I hope the Minister will seek to match the good work undertaken by the Scottish Government in this area, especially as we negotiate trade deals post-Brexit. That is the kind of reassurance that she knows our constituents are looking for.
I am delighted to speak and represent the views of more than 150 of my constituents who contacted me to offer their support for the debate. Anyone who has been in the presence of a cow being separated from her calf, as she hurls herself repeatedly at the byre door to try to get to her baby, knows full well that animals are sentient beings. From the thousands of videos on Facebook and YouTube showing animals being released from laboratories for the first time into a space where they can see the sky and feel the grass under their feet, we know that animals experience joy. Who, watching an octopus drag ocean detritus to cover herself and hide in full view of the shark hunting her, would not feel awe at her intelligence or recognise her desire to live and protect her young?
On 27 November 2017, the Scottish Government recognised that sentience and stated that
“the Scottish Government fully accepts the principle of animal sentience and will take all appropriate action to safeguard animal welfare standards. Animal Sentience has been recognised in Scottish legislation for over a century”.
In keeping with that statement, on 29 February this year, the Scottish Government created the first independent animal welfare commission, consisting of 12 members who will provide ethical and scientific advice to the Scottish Government. It is chaired by Professor Cathy Dwyer, an eminent professor of animal behaviour and welfare.
The commission will consider how the welfare needs of sentient animals are being met by devolved policy, possible legislative and non-legislative routes further to protect the welfare of sentient animals, and the research required for an evidence base for future policy development. It will also specifically consider how current policies take account of animal sentience, the wider welfare needs of animals and what improvements could be made.
In Westminster, the Government have yet to incorporate the Lisbon treaty article 13 acknowledgement of animal sentience into law. That is quite ironic, given that the original framework was initiated by the United Kingdom when they held the presidency of the European Union in 1997. The Government have stated that the sentience of animals will continue to be recognised, with protections strengthened once we leave the European Union. We have heard on many occasions that that is the Government’s view, but no animal sentience legislation has been forthcoming. We welcome their commitment, but yet we wait. We were told in a written response on 14 March 2019 that officials continue to engage with stakeholders further to refine the Government’s proposals.
Now we have left the European Union, it is even more critical that the Government, at a very minimum, have animal sentience as a keystone value within future policy. All existing animal welfare laws instigated and passed in the House of Commons are in place because we wish to stop animals being subjected to pain. We do therefore already recognise animal sentience and should bring that recognition into law.
I thank the hon. Member for giving way and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for securing this important debate during these trying times. As an animal lover and owner, I have found the contributions of Members across the House touching. Will the hon. Member join me in commending the work of Friends of Animals Wales, a charity in my patch of Rhondda Cynon Taf, and in particular Eileen Jones? They do fantastic work with the Welsh Government against the barbaric puppy farming trade and are also pushing for Lucy’s law to be implemented to protect all dogs from such awful treatment. I pay tribute to them for their fantastic work.
Anyone who has had a pet and loved them, with that relationship having built up over the years, knows that that creature is sentient. Does my hon. Friend share my frustration that sentience has been described as some unnecessary additional clause to be added to legislation and ascribed as an ornament on a Christmas tree? Does he agree that sentience is surely not an additional ornament, but a central and fundamental tenet of any legislation? The analogy of sentience being an ornament is so inaccurate because sentience is the tree—the central component of animal welfare. Does he also agree that, in line with the Scottish animal welfare commission, that should be a central part of policy making in Westminster?
Order. Before we proceed, I see a number of new Members present, so let me make the point for the benefit of Members new and old that interventions are supposed to be interventions, not speeches. We welcome speeches. If anyone wishes to take part in the debate, please simply rise in the usual manner. An intervention should be brief.
I want to talk about my experience of the criminal justice system, and how the sentences I have seen being given are a reflection of society’s attitude to animals and an indictment of how we treat animals in my profession.
I cannot calculate the number of lower court cases in which I have acted, during which I heard the most harrowing details of animal abuse in interviews conducted by the RSPCA. However, I cannot remember one occasion when a perpetrator was sent to prison. Those cases rarely went to the Crown Court, because of the sentencing powers that we are talking about.
I pay tribute to the Minister and to any Government who have legislated to support animal welfare, but we must increase the punishment available to our courts to reflect the fact that animals are sentient beings, and that we value them as such. We must find a way to ensure that sentencing within the criminal justice system acts as a deterrent to the people who act in the most appalling manner, rather than most people being able to walk away from the justice system with, at worst, a community penalty.
I could tell you how much I love animals, Sir Roger, but you do not want to hear that. I know that this Government are committed to the highest possible standards of welfare for animals, and that they will bring forward the measures they think are reasonable and appropriate to achieve those aims. I know this is not in the Minister’s portfolio, but could she comment on any discussions she has had with colleagues in the Ministry of Justice about giving guidance to the courts, the prosecution and the RSPCA, which mounts such prosecutions, to ensure that we have a rigorous attitude to animal prosecutions and that the courts provide harsh but fair sentences?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I am pleased to have the opportunity to sum up for my party in this important debate.
There cannot be an MP anywhere who does not receive a large quantity of correspondence on this subject; East Renfrewshire is no different. It is interesting that there are large numbers of us here in Westminster Hall, considering how quiet it is in Westminster today. That reflects the fact that people all over the United Kingdom are focused on this issue. I have been very interested by the excellent speeches that we have heard today, particularly that of my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), who is a tireless advocate for animal welfare, as is the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who moved the debate in such an excellent and powerful way, taking us through how we got to where we are now.
Evidently, there is a degree of reluctance—it is hard to get away from that. Despite assurances from the UK Government, the issue of animal sentience is not being dealt with in the way that many of us think it should be. That is disappointing. As we move forward and leave the EU, there are real risks for animals, including wildlife and farm animals, and in how crime relating to them is dealt with. The hon. Member for Bristol East rightly pointed out how odd it is that the UK Government speak so positively about animal welfare, yet here we are.
On a personal level, it is important to me that the SNP has a strong stance on this issue. I have been a vegetarian for several decades, if not a vegan, like the hon. Member for Bristol East, but I might get there. It has become increasingly important to me and many others to know that animals are offered appropriate and proper treatment, and to have an acknowledgment that they are sentient beings and ought to be treated accordingly.
The SNP is committed to improving animal welfare standards, which is welcome, and we are taking action in Scotland this year to ensure that that continues to be reflected in legislation. It is positive that the SNP Scottish Government recently introduced the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill. It sends a clear and important message that animal cruelty and wildlife crime will not be tolerated in Scotland. The Bill delivers on a promise that the Scottish Government made to create new legislation to further protect animals and wildlife. It would be interesting to hear whether the Minister intends to reflect it in similar legislation here.
To be clear, a sentient animal is one that can experience feelings such as pain or pleasure. We have all seen that in reality; we all know what it means. We can summon images to our minds, such as loving and beloved family dogs—the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) spoke positively about them—or horses kicking their heels for joy. My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Allan Dorans) spoke about cows and calves; I think we all know what he was talking about—there surely cannot be any doubt about the principle. The hon. Member for Henley said that he felt that sentience was covered by case law, but let us be sure and have clear, indisputable regulation rather than relying upon that.
The hon. Member for Bristol East spoke about the repeated promises about legislation that the UK Government made, but that were still unfulfilled. I wonder if the hon. Member for Henley, who was politely dismissive of the issue of welfare standards in trade talks, could reflect further on that. His assurances are welcome, but some real assurance is needed, not just the repetition that we do not need to worry about that.
As my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran explained, there is significant concern amongst our constituents and many others. People are fearful about the issue of chlorine-washed chicken, among other things. We need to be able to reassure people on those matters, as well as on welfare. Foremost among the commitments that the SNP Government in Scotland have made is one to maintain animal rights standards as a minimum, and not to compromise those standards during trade talks. As we have heard again today, as the trade talks begin, we must be clear that those animal welfare standards must not be traded away by the UK.
The hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) spoke about the cross-party interest in animal welfare. It is important that we acknowledge that and, given that, we should be able to find ways to move forward. We have heard that the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill increases the maximum penalties in Scotland that can be applied to the most serious offences, and that five years’ imprisonment or an unlimited fine are possibilities. I think there is an appetite across the House for similar measures here.
In terms of the slaughter of livestock, we support that being undertaken as close as possible to the point of production, and with full regard for animal welfare standards, which brings me to the issue of slaughterhouses in Scotland. More than eight in 10 slaughterhouses in Scotland have already installed CCTV coverage in their premises on a voluntary basis, but we will legislate in Scotland to ensure that that is a requirement for all slaughterhouses.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock spoke about the first independent Animal Welfare Commission, which is being put in place in Scotland. It will be chaired by Professor Cathy Dwyer. It will specifically look at how the welfare needs of sentient animals are being met, possible legislative and non-legislative routes to further protect the welfare of sentient animals and the research requirements to provide an evidence base for future policy developments. They are sensible and structured measures. The hon. Member for Bristol East pointed out that Scotland had recently done this and, quite reasonably, asked why the UK Government had not done the same.
There cannot be any doubt about the clear and uncompromising message that animal cruelty and welfare will not be tolerated in Scotland. I am grateful to the Scottish Minister for Rural Affairs and Natural Environment, Mairi Gougeon, who has done significant work on that. The hon. Member for Bury North (James Daly) spoke powerfully about the need for consequences for people who mistreat animals and penalties that deter people. The provisions in the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill, which was introduced in September 2019, are the type of measures he is talking about. Hon. Members are always positive when they hear that the Bill includes increased penalties for attacks on service animals, otherwise known as Finn’s law. We rightly hear a great deal about that.
In her powerful speech the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) told us where we need to be now. The Government need to pick up on all the issues and demonstrate that they are listening, and that they intend to put in place measures in which we can have confidence and on which we can rely, so that we can point them out to our constituents, who are so concerned about the welfare of animals.
I was pleased when Kirsteen Campbell, the chief executive of the Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said:
“These exciting changes—
those made by the Scottish Government—
have the potential to be transformational for animals across the country”.
That is important, because the way we deal with animals says much about us. It is heartening to hear the level of people’s concern not to let such things slip by, and to take account of the need to make proper welfare provision for animals. I was struck by what the hon. Member for Southend West said about the challenges we face just now, and how important pets will be to many people. I reflect on a fantastic charity that started some years ago in my area, called Give a Dog a Bone…and an animal a home. It links up elderly and lonely people with pets that need a home. We will need a great deal more of that kind of work, and I hope that people will feel able to support such organisations.
I hope that the people who signed the petition that secured this debate feel the issues that concern them have had an airing, and that the Minister will give some assurances that there are changes afoot, and that there will be some kind of regulation.
It gives me great pleasure to respond to this very good debate on behalf of the official Opposition. There is cross-party support for enshrining animal sentience in law, and I want to express Labour’s full-hearted support for the effort to do so. We have heard powerful speeches today, but there are also community groups in each of our constituencies who engage in advocacy and campaign for 21st-century animal welfare laws. We know that what we do will make a difference to animals—domestic animals, animals in agriculture, and others—if measures are put in place correctly.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for her unrelenting campaigning on this area. She has a good position on the Petitions Committee, which gives her a new platform, and will continue to use that with force, ferocity and cross-party support for as long as Ministers fail to listen to her arguments. She made a good argument today.
I congratulate the Minister. This is the first time since she has been in her new role that I have had the opportunity to speak from the Bench opposite her. I am a big fan of cross-party working, and for most animal welfare legislation there is a lot of cross-party support. Sometimes the only thing that holds us back is the ambition to achieve what cross-party support has the potential to deliver. In relation to animal sentience, we have an opportunity.
My hon. Friend raises an important issue and, if the Minister has not yet read Labour’s animal welfare manifesto from the general election, it is very good and well worth reading. Puppy smuggling is dealt with under point 10. It is horrendously cruel, on an epic scale. There is huge public support for dealing with the cruelty that organised crime gangs perpetrate on those tiny little dogs.
The debate shows why Parliament’s online petitions are good: the fact that 104,000 people signed and 43 organisations back the petition shows that there is public support for enshrining animal sentience in law. I thank everyone who clicked on the link, then went to their email inbox to find the email and clicked the confirmation link to make sure their name could be added. I thank them for participating in earlier petitions as well as the present one, because the arguments have not changed. There may have been a slight adjustment as to which faces are around the table, but the importance of animal sentience remains.
The petition states:
“EU law recognises animals as sentient beings, aware of their feelings and emotions.”
That is enshrined in the Lisbon treaty and the Government chose not to move that provision over in Brexit legislation. There was an outcry at the time and Ministers have been dragging their heels ever since, trying to make the case that although the issue is important, enshrining it in law is not really necessary. I say that it is necessary and important, and that there is cross-party support for doing it.
To be fair to the Government—I regard the present and previous Governments as one continuous Conservative Government, although I know they like to think of themselves as fresh, since December—in 2017 they introduced a Bill. They withdrew it in 2018, but we are yet to see any signs of the crucial legislation since then. However, in the intervening year, a prominent and successful Conservative Back Bencher wrote in The Guardian:
“There is currently a cross-party consensus that we should enshrine the recognition of animal sentience in statute to underpin all our existing policies and inform new ones.”
The writer was, of course, the brand new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, during his brief sabbatical from the role of Minister. One reason I have a lot of time for the Environment Secretary is that initially when he was freed from the clutches of office he made a bold, clear case for changes in agriculture, fishing and animal welfare. I hope that now he is thrust back into ministerial office—in the Cabinet, no less—the same independence of thought that he demonstrated on the Back Benches will come into play.
In the same article in The Guardian he said:
“One option might be to suggest that the US introduce a similar piece of legislation at federal level to drive the modernisation of its own laws. We could even send British advisers to Washington to help them do it as part of our trade negotiations.”
I am not certain that the US President would take kindly to British trade advisers advising him on animal welfare standards, but there is something important there: the people with whom we want to do trade deals must not undercut our animal welfare standards, in relation to agriculture, domestic pets or any element of the high levels of animal welfare we enjoy at the moment.
I assume that my hon. Friend is referring to the same Guardian article that I mentioned in connection with the Agriculture Bill. It is hard to believe that the Secretary of State would have written for The Guardian twice during his brief period of freedom. Did he not go on to say that we should protect animal welfare and other standards in future trade deals by enshrining them in law—in the Agriculture Bill, for example?
My hon. Friend is dead right. There is an amazing amount of good political meat in publications by the Environment Secretary from the time when he was on the Back Benches. It feels as if the Opposition do not need to remind him of them, because I am sure his officials have churned through those plentiful publications, and the amendments he tabled to an earlier Agriculture Bill. Sadly, his new batch of Ministers recently voted against those proposals, but they include things for which there is a lot of support, and there is cross-party support for what we are discussing today.
I do not think British diplomats in Washington instructing President Trump to raise his domestic animal welfare standards to get a trade deal with the UK would work, but it is important to maintain high levels of protection in law, so that during negotiations the people we are negotiating with know the strength of feeling of the British people and Parliament: that we will not accept any lowering of standards or undercutting of them in any trade deal. That is why we need the animal sentience legislation to be implemented before the end of the implementation period. We cannot allow our animal welfare standards to fall behind those of the EU, especially after the plentiful promises of Conservative Ministers.
The animal sentience legislation that I hope the Minister will announce needs to apply to all policy areas and all sentient animals. If an animal is sentient, they are sentient no matter how they are being used by humans or where they are living. The law needs to confer an active duty to respect that sentience on all aspects of government. Simply having a function within DEFRA to advise the rest of Government is insufficient because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East said, there are other Departments that need to reflect the importance of animals in their day-to-day work and that might not, as standard, take animal sentience on board. That is why an independent monitor is such a good idea.
The legislation should require the Government to publish an annual report detailing how the duty has been acted on, including the policy options considered and what animal welfare impact assessments have been undertaken. It also needs to recognise that decapods and cephalopods—that is, crabs and lobsters, octopuses and squids—are sentient animals. In Labour’s animal welfare manifesto, which, again, is a very good read and still available on the website, we make the case that lobsters experience anxiety, crabs use tools, and octopuses have been known to predict the results of football matches—at least, that is not quite in the manifesto, but the sense of it is.
That is why, in our manifesto, we talk about not allowing those precious creatures to be boiled alive, for instance. We know that if you put a lobster in a boiling pot of water, it experiences pain. The pain may be lessened by the experience of being slowly heated, but it is pain none the less, and there are better ways of doing it.
The petition calls for a new body to support the Government in their duties to animals, which I referred to briefly, to ensure that
“decisions are underpinned by…scientific and ethics expertise.”
It has been proposed under a few names. The experience of Scotland was mentioned by the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), and the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Allan Dorans) spoke about how Scotland has already got there. In Scotland, it is called the animal welfare commission, but it could also be an animal welfare advisory council. In our manifesto, we talk about an animal welfare commissioner. Regardless of the name or the precise format, the function is the same: to support and critically analyse, to advise Ministers and Government to make the right decisions, and to ensure that the effects are truly understood.
My party prides itself on being the party for animal welfare. At the last election, we were the only party to publish a manifesto exclusively on animal rights. In it, we set out how we would appoint an independent animal welfare commissioner to operate in England and in collaboration with the devolved Administrations. Now that the UK is no longer a member of the European Food Safety Authority, we need to establish a body that can advise DEFRA and all of Government independently, and to represent the wealth of scientific, ethics and animal welfare expertise available in the UK.
We know that at the moment there is no specific body that is under a statutory duty to enforce the welfare requirements of Labour’s landmark Animal Welfare Act 2006, which my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) mentioned. That needs to be placed on a statutory footing, and an animal welfare commissioner would help to achieve that. I recommend that the Minister cut and paste that from our manifesto into her Department’s work plan; if she did, it would enjoy the cross-party support that we have seen from the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) and my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), who were united in the same effort here.
The commissioner would be responsible for gathering the latest scientific evidence on animal sentience and welfare, to ensure that there is the most up-to-date, evidence-based understanding across Whitehall, and to ensure that our nation maintains its top ranking in the animal protection index. Working alongside Government, the commissioner would assist in the promotion of best practice in animal welfare internationally because, although we pride ourselves on the legislative framework, Britons care about animal welfare both at home and abroad. To see that, we need only look at changes that the tourism industry has made to remove animals from so many of the products sold to British tourists, because that is not something Brits support.
Ministers are often found saying that the legislation that has been proposed now that we have left the EU is world leading, but time and again the evidence does not support that high-falutin’ soundbite. The Bills that have come out of DEFRA recently on agriculture and the environment have, I am afraid, been disappointing, at a time when many of us—including many of the “greenies” from across the parties and across the divide here—had high hopes that they really would deliver on that promise.
We cannot be world leading without an animal welfare commissioner. We are not even leading in the UK, because Scotland already has an animal welfare commissioner. England is already lagging behind. That matters as well. My little sister is a sheep farmer in Cornwall and, if she were to move north of the border, the animals that she now keeps in Cornwall would have a different legislative framework and different protections. That does not quite seem right for the same sheep, and I think there is an option to look at that again. I am not advocating taking sheep out of the Secretary of State’s own county along the way, for fear of offending him, but having those standards across our islands is important when it comes to animal welfare.
As I conclude, I will mention briefly the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), who said in his remarks that he was exasperated by the language around chlorinated chicken. Indeed, many people in this place are, and the answer is very simple: put it in the Bill. That would prevent our standards from ever being undercut. If the hon. Gentleman believes the words of Ministers—they are said so very often—there is no reason for that not be put in a Bill, because those words are already on record. The thing is, I do not believe Ministers when they say that. There is an important element of building trust in these areas.
The difficulty when we sit on the Opposition Benches, where our job is to scrutinise rather than to support, is that we look for evidence of the words. There is a genuine risk that standards could be undercut.
It is important to make a distinction here, because this is frequently lost in interventions, although I hope that will not be the case with the hon. Gentleman. It is not that we think the Government will somehow lower our standards immediately, but by signing trade deals that undercut our standards and permit food produced to lower animal welfare standards or with negative environmental impacts, we will be allowing in produce that undercuts our own farmers and our high animal welfare standards, and that creates an incentive to lower regulatory pressures in the UK—or protections, as the Opposition like to think of them.
That is not something that is supported. It is not supported by Labour, it is not supported by the SNP and it is not supported by many Conservative Members, nor is it supported by the National Farmers Union and other groups. There are elements of cross-party support for keeping standards high and keeping that in law; it is one of those areas where we can come together on a cross-party basis to say that animal sentience should be in law. If we did, it should be a simple Bill with good scrutiny—the Minister knows that there are many experts in this House who would happily advise her for free along the way—because it is important that we get it done. At the moment, far from getting done, it is just getting delayed.
I hope that the Minister, when she gets to her feet, will give a boost to the petitioners—all 104,000 of them, in nearly every single parliamentary constituency of the country—and reassure them that this petition will not only enjoy warm words from Government, but see Government action before the end of the implementation period at the end of this year.
It really is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this important debate, Sir Roger. I am not sure that we have yet reached a point on animal welfare where we are sharing glory, but if there is glory to be shared, you should certainly have a part in that, as should many of the hon. Members who have spoken in today’s debate. I recognise that many hon. Members here have been involved in this area for a long time and will continue to be involved, and that is to be welcomed.
I thank in particular the Petitions Committee and its representative in this Chamber, the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), for giving us the opportunity to discuss this important subject. I also thank the 104,000 people who signed a petition to say that it is important that the House have this debate.
I start by saying that we should be proud of this country’s animal welfare record. In preparing for the debate, I had a little look at the history books. We started legislating for animal welfare in the 1830s—a long time before we put into place many other provisions that we would now consider essential, such as for the protection of children—so it is true that we are keen on protecting animals in this country.
It has never been in dispute that, of course, animals are sentient beings. Today’s debate demonstrates once again that we are a nation of animal lovers. All colleagues will know how deeply their constituents feel about these issues. We see that all the time in the love and money that people give to animal charities. We have heard today about the work that the Barnsley Brownies have been doing, and the excellent work that Give a Dog a Bone has been doing in East Renfrewshire. I pay tribute to all those who are involved in that way.
If we are mentioning community groups, I must speak up on behalf of my constituent Helena Abrahams, who runs Gizmo’s Legacy. We talk about how we treat animals and how important they are to us, but, as the Minister knows, thousands of cats are disposed of every year without being scanned for a chip by local authorities. Cats are part of the family and need to be returned home rather than simply thrown into landfill. Will she agree to meet me or Ms Abrahams to discuss the matter further?
It will give me enormous pleasure to agree to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that. I am a former officer of the all-party parliamentary group on cats and, indeed, the proud keeper—I certainly would not call myself the owner—of Midnight, voted parliamentary cat of the year the year before last. He definitely keeps me fully under control and has no difficulty in telling me about all his welfare needs.
Until 31 December, we are covered by article 13 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union, but the Government have committed to introducing new laws on sentience, as we heard many times. We had an extremely clear manifesto commitment to do that, and I confirm that we will do so as soon as we can, but I am sadly unable to say exactly when that will be.
Obligations on keepers of animals under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 make it an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to any animal, and anyone responsible for an animal must take reasonable steps to ensure that the animal’s welfare needs are met. At this point, I thank those vets, charities and animal welfare organisations working around the clock with Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs officials in these difficult times of reacting to the spread of the coronavirus to develop guidance for pet and livestock owners. We want to help owners and keepers to take proportionate hygiene measures while supporting animal welfare.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) spoke of the comfort that animals can give us in these frightening times, which was an important, well-made point. We are pleased to support the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill, a private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder), who has just popped out of the room. It had its First Reading on 5 February 2020. It is the same Bill that the Government introduced in the last Parliament, and this small but critical piece of legislation will increase maximum sentences for animal welfare abuses tenfold, from six months to five years. It was good to hear the breaking news during the debate that we will next hear about this important Bill on 12 June.
I understand the concerns raised about the loss of protections as we leave the EU. I have never spoken ill of Government lawyers, and I certainly would not like to start now, but article 13 of the Lisbon treaty was proposed and promoted by UK Government lawyers. It states, as I think we all agree, that animals are sentient beings and that the EU and member states should pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals when formulating and implementing policies, but only in relation to a limited number of EU policy areas. Article 13 also provides some wide-ranging exemptions for cultural and religious practices and so on. It does not—I hesitate to criticise it, but we must—confer directly applicable rights or legally enforceable requirements. Frankly, it does not provide the sort of protection for animals that we want going forward.
Now that we have left the EU, we have the opportunity, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West said so powerfully, to do things differently and in a way that reflects the importance we attach to animal welfare. Of course, what really matters is that we can enforce standards of animal welfare. I listened with interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly). We must find a way to ensure that sentencing acts as a deterrent, and I am extremely happy, given my legal background, to have many conversations with him about that, so we shall take that offline.
We have some world-leading animal protections in place in this country. The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) will be pleased that we have introduced a ban on the commercial third-party sale of puppies and kittens, known as Lucy’s law, and I pay tribute to the charity from her constituency that worked on that. The ban will help to clamp down on puppy farming and to ensure that our much-loved pets have the best start to their lives. It comes into force on 6 April, which will be welcomed.
On your birthday? That is good news. We have coupled the ban with a very effective public awareness campaign—not everything is to do with legislation; there are other methods of getting the animal welfare message out there—called “Petfished”, on how to source puppies and kittens responsibly and how to watch out for the tricks that clever and deceitful sellers use in this area. I encourage all those who have not seen it to have a quick google.
The Wild Animals in Circuses Act 2019 recently came into force, ensuring that wild animals can no longer perform in travelling circuses. CCTV is now mandatory for all slaughterhouses in England. We also support the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Act 2019, commonly known as Finn’s law, which increases protections for police animals. It was mentioned by my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell). I spoke from the Back Benches in favour of that Act, as I think he did, and I met Finn, which was truly an honour.
The Government will introduce the necessary legislation on animal sentience as soon as we can, and I look forward to debating the details of the legislation with Members, particularly those present. Several useful points have been made during the debate, which I will take back and feed in.
There is considerable and growing interest in cephalopods and decapod crustaceans and whether they are sentient. At DEFRA, we have to follow the science, and because we want to ensure that this matter is progressed, we commissioned an independent review of the science on the sentience of those creatures, as the hon. Member for Bristol East said. A tender for the review was published on 6 March, and its findings will provide us with a robust scientific view later this year. I do not know the history of this matter, I am afraid—I have been the Minister only since just before the review was commissioned—but I think it is important that we look carefully at what that review says. It will be a full review of the evidence out there, and I look forward to sharing it and discussing it with the hon. Lady.
I sort of look forward to that, but if the research is due to run from May to November, and if this legislation has to be in place by the end of December, and given that we will obviously break up for Christmas, when will we actually have that debate? What is the window for that legislation to be brought forward? I do not see that it can make it.
While absolutely committing to bring forward the legislation at some point, I am not committing to bringing it forward this year, which I am seeking to explain is not necessary because other protections are in place.
I have listened with interest to discussions on sentience, including on whether a new animal welfare advisory body should be created. It is clearly important that the Government receive the right expert advice when assessing the impacts on welfare needs. Various models might be appropriate. DEFRA already has an animal welfare committee tasked with providing independent, impartial advice to Ministers on welfare matters. We heard from the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Allan Dorans) about the introduction of the Scottish animal welfare commission to provide advice on sentience. It undertakes interesting work, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that we follow the progress of that commission extremely closely. The Home Office’s Animals in Science Committee advises on all matters concerning the use of animals in scientific procedures. There are a number of models that we can choose from, and we are actively exploring the options.
I thank the hon. Member for Bristol East for securing the debate on this important issue. I know that she attempted to introduce a private Member’s Bill on it in the last Parliament. Unfortunately, there was no parliamentary time to debate it, but I look forward to debating our new proposals with her when we can bring them forward. The Government place great importance on the welfare of animals, and the measures I set out demonstrate the steps that the Government have taken, and continue to take, to strengthen our high animal welfare standards.
I end, because it is important that I do this, by putting to bed the ghosts of the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and reaffirming, whether necessary or otherwise, that the Government are absolutely committed to maintaining high standards of animal welfare, food security and environmental protection. The Secretary of State, as the shadow Minister rather teasingly referred to, is very committed to high standards, as am I. Chlorinated chicken is absolutely not allowed under English law; it is simply not something that we have to worry about. High standards are here, and we hope that higher standards will come in the future. Nobody need be worried about spooks in the night.
Okay. I will not take up that much time.
The Minister’s response has left me thoroughly confused and more than a little concerned, and I think that the people from the campaign “A Better Deal for Animals”, some of whom are watching here today, will be equally alarmed by what she said. It might not have been my belief, but my understanding was that the Government were committed, in their manifesto, to introducing the law as soon as possible. First, there was the original promise. Let us not forget that there was going to be a Back-Bench revolt. New clause 30 had been introduced by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). The Government were going to lose on that. The Government made a promise that they would legislate, so that they did not lose. They bought off their own Back Benchers, as well as the Opposition, by promising to legislate.
Therefore, there was a promise to legislate before Brexit, which has turned into a promise to legislate before the end of the transition period. There was a manifesto commitment to do this as soon as possible, but the Minister has just said that it might well not be this year.
It is important to clarify this matter, as the hon. Lady has raised it specifically. The manifesto commitment is to bring forward the legislation as soon as possible. That is absolutely our position and that is what we will do. However, being realistic, we are in an emerging situation. We do not know what will happen over the next few months, and there are three very important DEFRA Bills going through both Houses of Parliament. I cannot, in those circumstances, absolutely swear to her that it will be this year. I tried to give reassurance in my speech that we already have animal welfare safeguards in our law, but the Government’s position remains the same: we will bring the legislation forward as soon as possible. Unfortunately, I do not know exactly when that will be.
The manifesto was obviously for the election towards the end of last year, and we then had a Queen’s Speech. One would have thought that if there was a manifesto commitment to do something as soon as possible, the Bill would have been mentioned in the Queen’s Speech. I appreciate that there are pressures on DEFRA and I certainly appreciate that there are many more pressures on the Government now than there were back then, but I do not think that we can use the coronavirus as an excuse for not having put something in the Queen’s Speech when none of us knew about that at the time. My concern is that the Minister seems to be trying to have it both ways by saying, “We will legislate; we have promised to legislate,” while also saying, “We don’t really need to legislate.”
This might genuinely be the Government’s view: “We do not feel that we need to legislate; we already have protections in law, but we know that at some point we will have to bring in a law, because we promised to do that to get out of an awkward situation.” We saw that with the Bill that became the Wild Animals in Circuses Act 2019. That was a far smaller matter, but again there was, I think, an Opposition day debate, and a huge number of people were supporting the change. Then it was dragged out; there was pre-legislative scrutiny and all sorts of things for a tiny little Bill that applied to, I think, 21 animals. It took forever.
My fear is that the Minister is trying to kick this issue into the long grass in the same way as the Wild Animals in Circuses Bill was in the long grass for an awfully long time. Many people outside the House will not be happy at all with this situation. Therefore, I will conclude by saying that there was a commitment to bring the concept of animal sentience into UK law. There was not a commitment to show people or illustrate by examples that it is already covered in UK law. We had that argument.
The commitment was to put this into UK law. There was then a manifesto commitment to put it into UK law as soon as possible. This is all very much Brexit related, and it was meant to be done by exit day—the end of January this year. Perhaps the transition period will be extended. Who knows? But the Government have made a clear commitment, and everyone expects them to live up to that commitment.
I must now put the Question. Unfortunately, although most of the main players for the next debate are here, we must wait until 6 o’clock to start it.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 242239 relating to the sentience and welfare of animals.