All animal lovers know that animals are aware of their feelings and emotions, and are capable of feeling joy, pleasure, fear and pain. However, when the UK left the European Union, animal sentience in the UK was no longer protected under Article 13 of the Lisbon Treaty. This meant that the UK lost the legal principle that underpinned animal welfare protections, with ministers no longer having to consider animal welfare when formulating policies. That’s why we have been lobbying for years to increase animal protections by enshrining animal sentience in law.
The current state of affairs
In 2019, we joined a coalition of 50 other animal protection organisations within the UK, calling for it to be a priority that animal sentience was enshrined in law, and to create a #BetterDealForAnimals post-Brexit. Despite petitioning, protesting, and securing Government debates on the issue, the chaos caused by the 2019 General Election, Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic, saw critical animal welfare bills shelved, or dropped entirely.
Fortunately, in May 2021, the Government agreed to finally recognise the sentience of vertebrates in the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill. Within their Action Plan for Animal Welfare, they have promised to ensure that government ministers will be held accountable to Parliament for the way they take animal welfare into account when making policy decisions. This will be done via an Animal Sentience Committee (ASC) who will scrutinise, report on, and recommend changes to government decisions.
This bill lacks any real judicial standing
Currently, any legal scrutiny would fall to the ASC, which has no direct power despite being able to make recommendations to Parliament. In this sense, animal sentience is sidelined when it comes to Government decision-making rather than being a direct and judicially enforceable duty. Without this judicial enforceability, Ministers will be able to disregard ASC recommendations, and their only requirement will be to respond to the recommendations in Parliament within three months. This removes the chance for scrutiny or discussion.
More is needed to hold Ministers accountable
We recommend that the Defra Secretary of State creates a cross-Whitehall Animal Health and Welfare (AHAW) Strategy. This would set out how Ministers (supported by the ASC) plan to take animals’ welfare into regard within upcoming policy plans that are liable to affect animals, while also giving an annual progress report to Parliament. This would tie Ministers more closely into animal sentience responsibilities, helping to prevent these responsibilities being shouldered solely by the ASC. It would also provide for full and constructive Parliamentary scrutiny over the extent to which Government plans consider animal welfare when establishing policies.
The ASC might not have the correct expertise and the necessary powers to be effective
There is currently a lack of clarity and specificity on who and how people will be appointed to this committee that needs addressing. Independent members, covering a wide range of expertise and knowledge on farm, companion and wild animal welfare issues must be appointed, with no focus on just one industry/perspective to ensure there are no biases present in their recommendations. We also want to ensure that membership is reviewed annually for suitability and effectiveness, and that ad hoc “guest” members are invited when specific expertise is required. As well as this, there must be a resolution procedure in place to address a lack of unanimous agreement, and the committee need to be made aware of policies that may adversely impact animal welfare and given the opportunity to produce recommendations in good time.
The definition of “animal” must be expanded
In its current state, the bill only covers vertebrates. We are calling for it to include cephalopods and decapod crustaceans such as octopuses and lobsters, as there is ample evidence to show that these groups of animals are sentient, so we urge Defra to hasten the publication of the evidence review it commissioned in 2020, to ensure that these animals can be added to the Bill during its passage through Parliament.
How you can help
We will continue to keep pressure on ministers and MPs to make sure our concerns are addressed as the Bill passed through Parliament, but in the meantime we need your help.
You can contact your local MP to call on them to support this bill as it passes through the House of Commons, and ensure that animal sentience is at the heart of Government policy making. You can find out your MP here at Write to Them.