The wait is finally over! After many years of lobbying, and first and second attempts being squandered as a result of political instability caused by Brexit and the pandemic, the critical issue of animal sentience is finally back on the agenda.
Since leaving the European Union we no longer have legislation that recognises animals as sentient beings (previously covered by Article 13 of the Lisbon Treaty), which means that animals are at risk of losing their protection.
Back in 2019 we joined a coalition of 45 other animal and environmental groups, calling for animal sentience to be enshrined in law and for it to be made a priority and a #BetterDealForAnimals post Brexit. We petitioned, we protested and we secured Government debates on the issue. But, despite the Bill being tabled and successfully making its way through parliamentary debates with little opposition , the turmoil caused by the 2019 General Election, Brexit and subsequently the pandemic, saw critical animal welfare bills like this put firmly on the shelf, only to gather dust for the next two years.
But the great news is finally we have a new iteration of the Sentience Bill launched just today by Lord Goldsmith.
As expected, the Bill has its positives and negatives. Unlike Article 13 in the EU, the policy scope for this Bill is all-encompassing, meaning all Government departments will need to take an animal’s needs into account when making laws. We also welcome the formation of an Animal Sentience Committee (ASC), which was recently described as:
‘an expert committee, free to roam across the breadth of Government policymaking and implementation and to prioritise those policy proposals that it believes will have the greatest implications for animal welfare, will be able to highlight evidence, recommend changes, and require Ministers to address its concerns – both formally and in the open’.
Whilst this Bill sounds promising, there are concerns that it lacks any real judicial standing. In its current state, any legal scrutiny falls into the hands of the ASC, a body that can make recommendations to decision makers within Parliament but has no direct power itself. In this sense, animal sentience is rendered as adjacent to Government decision-making rather than being a direct and judicially enforceable duty.
We would like to ensure this Bill succeeds in holding Ministers accountable, so with this in mind we recommend the inclusion of an additional duty for the Defra Secretary of State to create and maintain a cross-Whitehall Animal Health and Welfare (AHAW) Strategy. This would prospectively 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, in addition to a linked duty to lay (in writing and in person) an annual progress report to Parliament. This duty would tie Ministers more closely into animal sentience responsibilities, helping to prevent these responsibilities being unduly shouldered 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.
Finally, we are calling for the definition of “animal” to be expanded beyond only vertebrates, to include cephalopods and decapod crustaceans such as octopuses and lobsters. 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.
This legislation is so important for animals across the country and will make sure the UK can uphold its high standards and not permit low welfare imports like hormone fed beef or chlorinated chicken into the country that undermine our own farmers.
We will be keeping a close eye on this Bill as it passes through parliament and is debated, so watch this space for future updates. In the meantime, make sure your write to your MP and ask them to support the Bill as it passes through the House of Lords.