We are missing an overarching strategy to animal welfare legislation. A more co-ordinated approach is required
MPs are concerned by the exponential rise in pet theft, writes Allen | Alamy
Policymakers must work with the RSPCA and others in the sector to achieve systemic change and embed animal welfare at the heart of government machinery
If a week is a long time in politics, then the year and a bit since I stood down as an MP feels like a lifetime. Observing at arm’s length, some things never change. Boris Johnson’s comb still hasn’t seen the light of day (lockdown affecting that not one jot), and the humour of The Guardian columnist John Crace is as reassuringly caustic as ever.
But some things have changed – the Conservative administration’s focus on animal welfare, for one.
From a party once seemingly oblivious to the public mood on hunting (I nearly got myself deselected as a new Tory PPC when I told my local party I was anti-hunting), to a suite of animal welfare commitments in its manifesto and apparently more coming soon.
Covid has understandably dominated the policy agenda in recent months, but just as light is appearing at the end of the lockdown tunnel, so it appears there may be a beacon of hope for those of us passionate about animal welfare.
Reassuringly, it seems that despite being a “has been” orange badge-holding ex-MP, I am still in tune with current MPs.
They are incensed by the current trend of cropping dogs’ ears in the name of fashion, and the exponential rise in pet theft and illegal puppy trading unleashed by Covid. Almost universally, they demand that farm animal welfare standards are improved, not degraded post-Brexit. Even a Remoaner like me can’t deny that sounds good.
The new parliamentary session looks set to pave the way for a whole raft of animal-related legislation and further consultations. But to really embed animal welfare at the heart of government machinery, we must start by putting in place solid foundations.
A new Animal Sentience Commission will be the real gamechanger
To really achieve this kind of systemic change, the formation of a new Animal Sentience Commission will be the real game changer. But the government must not take parliamentarians for fools – the commission must be independent, it must have statutory authority and the Bill must place an actual legal duty on ministers. The RSPCA, with expert knowledge of animal welfare combined with commercial experience through its RSPCA Assured Farms, would be a unique participant – just saying.
Beyond sentience, we then expect to see a plethora of very welcome but nevertheless somewhat diverse legislative reforms: a ban on live exports, the sale of fur and foie gras, glue traps and the keeping of primates as pets; tackling the illegal wildlife trade and livestock worrying; the introduction of mandatory cat microchipping; and further consultations on game bird caging, sow farrowing crates and food labelling. Christmas has come early you might say – but with a more co-ordinated approach, this animal welfare gift could be for life, not just for Christmas.
That’s why I am working across the whole animal welfare sector to pull together our own green paper “No Animal Left Behind” which we will soon publish. Because while we welcome the reforms coming to Parliament, and will work positively with the government, we are missing the kind of holistic, overarching strategy that I know Defra desires.
Covid has taught us a thing or two about what can go wrong when the human-animal balance is disturbed. Climate change is making us reconsider the sustainability of our resources, and Brexit demands that we acknowledge the tension between free trade and high-welfare farming. There is an inextricable and circular link between people, planet, animals and health. Policymaking in silos simply isn’t an option any longer.
Our green paper won’t have all the answers, but it will demonstrate our ability to work collaboratively and our desire to partner with government to create the kind of joined up strategy we so desperately need.
Heidi Allen is former MP for South Cambridgeshire