Countryside Alliance Chief Executive Tim Bonner writes:
On Tuesday the Government published an Animal Welfare Bill containing measures on increased sentences for the worst instances of animal abuse, and to enshrine animal sentience in law. The Secretary of State, Michael Gove, had already signalled his intention to address these two policy areas. The Alliance supports the proposals on sentencing and is clear that animals are sentient as our legislation, especially the Animal Welfare Act, recognises. It is already clear, however, that the animal rights lobby will not be satisfied with a Bill that just addresses these issues and that any debate on it will be hijacked.
Whether or not it will be possible to bring amendments to the legislation on a range of animal rights issues will be largely down to the lawyers, but you can be absolutely certain that the Government has declared an open season for lobbying on every item on the animal rights agenda. Influential backbench Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith has said that there are: “14 or 15 things which would absolutely have to be in the Bill to make it comprehensive, and if they are not there, someone is going to try to fill those gaps. Either the Government then loses vote after vote or Conservative MPs trying to be helpful to Government will find themselves being asked to vote against animal welfare initiatives which most people believe in, and that is not a good look for the party.”
MPs can now look forward to manufactured online campaigns on every issue from badgers to circus animals and many, many more besides. The Government will come under huge pressure to turn this from a Bill to protect animal welfare, into a Bill which can be used to promote an animal rights agenda. Opening the door to this sort of animal rights campaigning would be questionable at the best of times, but at this stage of the Brexit process when the creation of an agricultural policy to replace CAP should surely be the priority it seems especially strange.
As to why the Government has chosen to address these issues in this way, at this time, it may be that there is naivety in some parts about the animal rights movement and how it works. There was a level of shock about the scale of the largely concocted online row about ‘animal sentience’, but anyone who has studied the similar campaigns on badger culling, hunting or dozens of other animal rights and rural issues would not have been surprised at all. Nor would they be persuaded that online campaigning is in any way representative of public opinion.
Our own research has consistently shown that issues such as hunting and badger culling are amongst the least influential on the people’s voting intention. This research is regularly confirmed by polling from companies like YouGov and Ipsos Mori which puts animal issues at the bottom of the pile in terms of voters’ priorities. Politicians are sometimes accused of living in a ‘Westminster bubble’. The Government’s approach to animal welfare issues suggests, however, that it may be more influenced by the ‘social media bubble’. It will now take a great deal of care and commitment to ensure that the proposals in the Bill do not become derailed.
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