by James Legge

On Monday 6th December the government’s Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill completed its Report Stage in the Lords. Our Director of External Relations, James Legge, has written about the events as they unfolded.

The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill has now completed its Report Stage after many hours of debate. The Government has dismissed each and every concern raised to date. It seems that it will end up going to the Commons unamended, apart from a technical Government amendment and one extending recognition of sentient to animals such as lobsters and octopi.

As Lord Herbert, the Countryside Alliance Chairman noted, a clear pattern emerged: “a serial rejection of all the amendments proposed… whether on issues of retrospectivity, on the composition of the committee, or on the matter of the risk that this committee is going to present of more judicial review.” He expressed admiration for the Minister, Lord Benyon’s “élan in batting away each of these suggestions, which came from former Ministers, from a former Leader of the House and from a former leader of the party—and from a brace at least of Queen’s Counsel, as well as suggestions and advice from a former Master of the Rolls”. They were all swatted away elegantly by the Minister. The Government also dismissed the concerns of Lord Trees, the most senior vet in the House.

As Labour peer and Countryside Alliance President, Ann Mallalieu QC, noted: “I still marvel at how a Government who were elected in part on a promise to reduce bureaucracy, especially that emanating from Europe, have taken the wholly uncontroversial issue of animal sentience, which no one would have argued with, and are trying to turn it into a textbook bureaucratic nightmare.” Lord Robathan described the Bill as “the most terrible piece of legislation” and a “shocking piece of legislation” of which “the Government should be embarrassed”.

The Government tried to explain that the “Bill is to provide a proportionate, targeted and timely accountability mechanism” to Parliament, but as the debate went on it became increasingly clear that the proposed Animal Sentience Committee could become much more. It remains unclear what its scope will be in practice, how it will operate or who its members will be. The Bill and the vague and non-binding draft Terms of Reference, forced from the Government by the legitimate concerns of peers, give little reassurance or clarity and bind neither current nor future Ministers.

The way in which the Sentience Committee might be used (or abused) by a future government was hinted at by Labour’s Baroness Hayman who chose, inevitably, to illustrate her point supporting the retrospective powers of the Sentience Committee to look at past policy decisions by referring to “the Hunting Act 2004 and the Game Act 1831”. She said Labour believes the Animals Sentience Committee “should be free to consider how the implementation of those laws affect the welfare of hares as sentient beings”. Unsurprisingly she did not suggest the Committee consider the animal welfare consequences of the Hunting Act, which many experts regard as having had a negative impact not just on foxes, but on wildlife and biodiversity in general.

Perhaps most alarming was the Minister’s suggestion that the Committee could prioritise policies based on “the extent of parliamentary, departmental, stakeholder or public interest.” What a gift to animal rights campaigners. He went on to note the obvious advantage of leaving any detail out of the Bill noting that “the draft terms of reference set out how we expect it to work… It provides flexibility to update the terms of reference when needed without the need to take up parliamentary time unnecessarily”. The Committee’s modus operandi can be changed seemingly any time. Even when asked for reassurance that “Chris Packham and Mark Avery of Wild Justice would not be eligible to be on the committee”, the Government said it was “not able to give that reassurance...(but) they might not be considered to be experts”; then again, they might.

The acquiescence of the Opposition was notable. Lady Hayman accepted the draft Terms of Reference without question. As Lord Caithness wryly observed: “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition were mostly absent, although the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, made a superb job of playing vice-Minister today. I hope that she gets her normal verve back and becomes a proper opposition Minister for the next Bill.”

The impression is given that for the Government, and it seems for the Opposition as well, the priority is getting something on the Statute Book rather than passing a good law. It remains to be seen what will happen when MPs get their hands on it, but as it stands the Bill could as equally be a force for bad, as it could for good.

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