The Countryside Alliance held two very successful events at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. These were an opportunity to hear more about the Government’s thinking behind the raft of animal related measure currently being brought forward, and in particular the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill.
We were delighted that Defra Minister, Victoria Prentis MP, and the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, Neil Parish MP agreed to join a discussion, chaired by Tim Bonner from the Alliance. Victoria has responsibility for farming, fisheries and food, and is also the Minister responsible for the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill, which is due to be debated by MPs for the first time on 25 October. Neil has been a longstanding Chair of the Efra Committee and is no stranger to challenging and scrutinising proposals and legislation coming from government. The discussion which followed was interesting and wide ranging, including the proposals to tackle the problem of livestock worrying, an issue on which the Alliance has long been campaigning. The Sentience Bill was the subject of considerable debate and delegates raised issues around its implications for religious slaughter and international trade deals. One big question remains, which is whether it is really necessary. As the Minister noted, clearly animals are sentient. Neil Parish observed that the Bill covers any aspect of government policy making, and there is a concern that the Government has “opened a huge can of worms”. He warned that the Government needs to be very careful how it sets up the Animal Sentience Committee (ASC), and he also noted that once established it will be there for future secretaries of state who will not necessarily be as sympathetic as the current ministerial team. It also remains unclear how the new sentience committee will sit alongside the existing Animal Welfare Committee or new committee’s being established such as the Trade and Agriculture Committee, which will work on our post Brexit trade deals. It was clear from the discussion that a broad range of people remain concerned about the sentience legislation and that the Government still needs to address these concerns and provide greater clarity about the ASC, its membership and function.
Our second event was a joint drinks reception with the Conservative Rural Forum, which was very well attended by delegates and parliamentarians. The Secretary of State for the Environment, George Eustice MP, spoke and made some interesting observations, which reflect the growing concern that our wildlife laws are not actually protecting wildlife as they are intended and that they are being weaponised by those with other agendas. He noted that our departure from the EU allows us to look at how things can be done differently. He emphasised that we must start to make policy “based on evidence, based on science”. He went on to say that we need to move away from litigation and that that the EU directives we have been working with suffer from ambiguity and that he wants to bring clarity and certainty to these areas of policy. The Government has taken powers in the Environment Bill to amend existing law and he has tasked Lord Benyon, Minister for Rural Affairs, to undertake a review of the Habitats Regulations to bring clarity and certainty, and ensure that the focus is on really delivering environmental improvement and policy is “not driven by litigation”. He sees the review as “an opportunity for science-based policy”. He specifically referred to the need to bring order and clarity to general licensing and that the Government remained committed to tackling hare poaching and, more controversially, introducing a statutory closed season for hares.
It was encouraging to hear that the Government has finally recognised the problem with the current application of wildlife laws. The Alliance has been pointing out the problem for a long time now. It is understood that as part of that work the Government will look at reviewing the application of the precautionary principle, so that it is applied as it was originally conceived, and cannot be weaponised by various interest groups to advance agendas and drive policy through the courts, in a way which not just does nothing for the proper management of our wildlife, but is actually harming our ability to protect and enhance our environment.