Countryside Alliance Chief Executive Tim Bonner writes:
Before Christmas the Defra Secretary Michael Gove, published his Animal Welfare (Sentencing and Recognition of Sentience) Bill. Whilst we support the broad principles of the Bill we immediately raised concerns that in its current form it would provide a vehicle for the animal rights movement both inside and outside Parliament. We also responded in more detail to the EFRA Committee which is holding an urgent inquiry into the draft Bill. Politicians, including Conservative MPs, have already stated their intention to bring amendments to any bill introduced into Parliament, which would challenge government policy on everything from badgers to game farming. If passed in its current form the Bill would also lay Ministers across the Government open to Judicial Review of claims their decisions had not given sufficient weight to the welfare of animals.
The EFRA Committee took oral evidence from lawyers and animal welfare groups last week and they raised, very clearly, similar concerns to ours. Sir Stephen Laws QC, former First Parliamentary Counsel, summed up the position of the lawyers when he said that the Bill “suffers from the defect of being an attempt to do politics with law and then to encourage people to do politics in the courts. That seems to me to be unwise. These are worthy objectives but they are probably objectives that are better dealt with by means of political accountability than by legal propositions”. The Labour committee member Angela Smith MP echoed the fears of many of us when she asked the witnesses: “is there a risk that this Bill could in effect embed animal rights in UK legislation rather than animal welfare?”.
This draft Bill is not an academic exercise, or as another Committee member put it “a political stunt”, it is potentially a far reaching piece of legislation with serious consequences for those involved in livestock farming, wildlife management and indeed any government policy which impacts on animals, however obliquely. The evidence of the EFRA Committee hearings was clear, as we expect its report to be: the draft Bill is in need of significant amendment if it is not to deliver a raft of unintended consequences. The Government must take these concerns seriously and not let itself be dictated to by its own original ambition. The consequences of getting this wrong would be considerable, not least for Michael Gove whose commitment to the countryside will be judged on how he handles these issues over the coming months.
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