by David Bean

On Monday 13 December the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill received its Third Reading in the House of Lords, following an unusual debate on a motion regretting the way in which its new Animal Sentience Committee is being set up. The motion, tabled by Countryside Alliance Chairman Lord Herbert of South Downs, would have appended a statement to the resolution passing the Bill stating that the House, “while strongly supporting measures to improve animal welfare, regrets the way in which the proposed Animal Sentience Committee is to be established.”

Reiterating his support for sensible measures to promote animal welfare, Lord Herbert outlined his opposition to the Bill:

“I feel strongly that animals must be treated properly but, whatever the good intentions of those promoting the Bill, I fear that it is not a wise measure as drafted. In fact, if we take a step back, it is actually an incredible measure. It seriously proposes that the effect of any government policy on the welfare of animals may be considered by an unfettered statutory committee and that Ministers must respond to that committee’s reports.”

He went on to sum up the scale of the challenge the Bill risks presenting to the efficient working of government:

“We are trying to beat a mutating virus. We are trying to level up, to build back better. We need Government to take better decisions, and more quickly. We need to get things done faster, yet we are putting in place a barely constrained mechanism which is simply bound to glue up government… At best, even with sensible people in place, the committee will put spanners in the works because frankly that will be its job. It will make it harder for Ministers to deliver, to take difficult balancing decisions, which they sometimes must, or to ignore populist sentiment.”

As the debate continued, a procession of peers expressed similar concerns; aside from the Minister, support for the Bill was found only from the frontbench spokespeople for Labour and the Liberal Democrats. From the Labour backbenches, Countryside Alliance President Baroness Mallalieu said,

“I cannot understand how a Government who were elected in no small part promising to reduce bureaucracy, especially that which came from Europe, can have taken the wholly uncontroversial subject of putting animal sentience on the statute book, something which nobody would disagree with, and now seem bent on turning it into a textbook bureaucratic nightmare… The Bill stirs up trouble for the future, not just for this Government but for future Governments.”

Also notable was the contribution from the crossbench peer Lord Etherton, who as Master of the Rolls served until January as the second most senior judge in England and Wales:

“…if the Government decided not to follow a recommendation from the sentience committee on contentious issues relating to animal welfare, it would inevitably give rise to the potential for judicial review and challenge. You cannot stop people bringing a judicial review. The Government may be confident that they would win, but these will not be straightforward matters. One will have to consider whether the sentience committee has acted within its statutory rights, whether or not the evidence sufficiently supports what the committee recommends and whether the Government have sufficient other factors which outweigh the recommendation of the committee. I agree that this Bill is going to come back to bite badly.”

Following the debate Lord Herbert did not press the motion to a vote and the Bill was passed and sent to the House of Commons. MPs will begin considering the Bill next year. The Countryside Alliance will continue to follow its progress closely.

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