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The government is bruised by the animal sentience backlash. We must seize this moment

4 min read

With the government bruised by the public outcry over animal sentience, now is the time to push for real improvements in animal welfare legislation, writes Caroline Lucas

Two decades ago, Britain used its presidency of the European Union to push for a ground-breaking change in the way animals were treated across the continent. A protocol adopted in 1999 meant that for the first-time animals were to be regarded as sentient beings, not just agricultural goods, and future legislation must take account of animal wellbeing.

It was an historic moment for animal protection. Since then it has informed over 20 pieces of European law on animal welfare, including the ban on conventional battery cages and the ban on cosmetics testing on animals.

In 2009, the original animal sentience protocol was incorporated into the Lisbon Treaty and agreed by every country in the EU. It requires policymakers to pay “full regard” to animal welfare in policymaking, since “animals are sentient beings”. It was a moment of celebration for campaigners, especially those in the UK who had been the driving force behind this win.

Fast forward to November 2017, and animal sentience was once again in the spotlight as MPs debated amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill. Though the government had promised to transpose EU law onto the British statute, their plans meant withdrawing from the Lisbon treaty and thus risking the loss of the crucial animal sentience protocol contained in it.

To counter the threat posed by withdrawing from the Lisbon treaty I tabled an amendment to the Withdrawal Bill to incorporate animal sentience. The simple purpose of New Clause 30, which was supported by MPs from five parties, was to ensure the protocol (Article 13) was repatriated. Sadly, the Tories voted it down – and that’s where their problems really began. At the time they insisted that they rejected the amendment because sentience was already covered in UK law. George Eustice, a Defra minister, said the “amendment was unnecessary because the 2006 Animal Welfare Act already recognises animals as sentient beings, so it would be repeating something that is already at the heart of our domestic animal welfare legislation”. This claim was contradicted by other ministers shortly afterwards.

Within days of the vote a viral social media campaign had forced the government to wake up to the fact that its fierce resistance to amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill was turning into a PR disaster. Despite their initial reasons for voting against the amendment, the Tories swiftly accepted that sentience was not covered by British Law, and proposed new draft legislation to enshrine it – and coupled it with longer sentences for those who abuse animals too.

It’s clear that the government has cottoned on to the fact that people don’t trust it on animal protection – and it is positive to see it taking some action to improve legislation. What’s concerning now, however, is the potential for a time lag between the planned British exit from the EU and a new piece of legislation from Michael Gove to fill the animal sentience gap. With Whitehall in a Brexit deadlock, the chances of passing a new piece of legislation to cover sentience before Brexit day are vanishingly small – meaning a legal gap is very likely to open up. That’s why I retabled my amendment to the Bill at report stage, and why I was disappointed to see the government once again vote it down.

The government is clearly bruised by the public outcry over animal sentience – and it is desperate to soften its image. That’s why it’s crucial that advocates of animal protection use this moment to push the government on other key issues. For a start we should be looking to make 2018 the year that the cruel and ineffective badger cull is finally stopped.

Caroline Lucas is Green MP for Brighton Pavilion

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