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Public bodies must recognise animals as sentient beings

4 min read

If we don’t legislate on animal sentience, we face the risk of welfare standards dropping, writes Kerry McCarthy ahead of the debate on her Animals (Recognition of Sentience) Bill

It was back in November 2017 that I added my name to an amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill tabled by Caroline Lucas MP. 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 any MP will tell you, animal welfare issues are always popular with constituents and this was no exception. There was a mass email campaign and vocal support from NGOs.

The Government was less enthused and tried to argue that the concept of animals as sentient beings was already implied in English law. How could you have legislation on animal welfare and animal cruelty if that wasn’t the case? But the backlash was fierce, with Government MPs being accused – a tad unfairly – of voting against the principle that animals were sentient beings.

The Government, forced to act, unveiled in December 2017 the three-clause draft Animal Welfare (Sentencing and Recognition of Sentience) Bill, which also proposed to increase maximum sentences for animal cruelty offences. The consultation closed on January 31st 2018, and the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee carried out pre-legislative scrutiny, recommending splitting the Bill so that the largely uncontroversial sentencing provision could be dealt with separately.

But it wasn’t until August 2018 that Defra got around to publishing the outcome of the consultation, having apparently been overwhelmed by the response, with 9,084 direct submissions and another 64,169 from 38 Degrees, which had conducted its own survey. Defra took on board the EFRA Select Committee recommendation to split the Bill. But neither bill has emerged since then.

Michael Gove, clearly still bruised by the media storm, told Tory Conference in October: “Animals are our fellow sentient beings. They show loyalty and devotion, and they know pleasure and pain.”

At the Better Deal for Animals parliamentary reception this February, he said: “There has never been any question that this Government is committed to recognising that animals are sentient beings, they feel pain and they can experience degradation in the way that all of us can… We need to ensure, and we will ensure, that legislation is brought forward.”

The animal welfare minister told the EFRA Committee in March that the Government was committed to legislating “as soon as possible” and was “looking for a vehicle” to bring it forward. Well, I have now provided that vehicle.

My Animals (Recognition of Sentience) Bill, which I will be introducing on April 3rd, will impose a duty on public bodies to have due regard to the welfare needs of animals as sentient beings when formulating or implementing policy. I have taken on board calls to include decapods and cephalopods – crustaceans, octopuses, squid – and, importantly, I am proposing the establishment of an Animal Welfare Advisory Committee to issue Guidance on how the animal sentience principles should be interpreted and applied and ensure that the duty is discharged.

If we don’t legislate, we face the risk that imports of lower welfare animal products could be permitted under new trade deals; that developers may not have to consider the impact on animals of new roads, housing or major infrastructure projects; that the UK could, through its aid or trade programmes, invest overseas in the kind of intensive farming systems that we do not allow in the UK; and that it would be more difficult to take action against inhumane wildlife management practices and wildlife crime.

There are some who still question whether the Bill is needed, or who want greater licence to ignore animal welfare, but the fact is, the Government promised legislation. Indeed, it staved off a major Commons defeat with this promise. It’s time now for the Government to back my Bill, or to bring forward its own legislation as a matter of urgency.

Kerry McCarthy is Labour MP for Bristol East

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