On Wednesday, 16 June, the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill was debated at Second Reading in the House of Lords.
The Bill is not without controversy; indeed, it comes from the false assertion that unless we put a reference to sentience in statute then somehow animal welfare cannot be protected. We have two hundred years of welfare legislation in this country, precisely because the fact of animal sentience is not in doubt. Sentience is not a principle; it is a fact. It is therefore in the Countryside Alliance’s view hard to see why this Bill is really necessary.
The debate in the House of Lords covered all points of view; the Government’s position for why it deemed the Bill was necessary, those that believed that the Bill should be made stronger, and those with reservations.
Let us start with the Government’s position. Lord Benyon, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defra, stated: “There has never been any question that this Government believe animals are sentient beings. We are now recognising this formally in domestic law and introducing a proportionate accountability mechanism to help reassure people that central government policy decisions take this into account.”
The view from government is that as there should be an explicit reference in law applicable to the Uk to the sentience of animals, no longer the case since we have left the EU. Lord Benyon confirmed that the Bill would do three things: provide recognition in law that any animal with a spine was sentient; establish an animal sentience committee and oblige the relevant Minister to respond to the committee’s reports through a written statement to Parliament. Simple apparently and uncontroversial but, as the contributions from peers made clear, the Bill, and its possible consequences, are anything but straightforward or uncontroversial.
Our Chair, Lord Herbert of South Downs, and our President, Baroness Mallalieu QC, gave excellent speeches that voiced many of the concerns the Alliance and other rural organisations have raised. Lord Herbert focused on three questions with respect to the Bill. The first question focused on the distinction between animal welfare and animal rights. Animal Welfare is one we all agree with: “that we should treat animals humanely, compassionately and properly.” Animal rights, however, is a little more complicated as yes, an animal under control should be fed and watered and cared for, but it is unreasonable to say that a wild animal, one not under our control, should be one we are responsible for feeding and watering. The second question Lord Herbert explored was how best to “advance the protection of animals on the basis of principle and evidence”. To do this, Lord Herbert argued, is to make law without emotion, as this can, and does, lead to bad law being made. The third question was whether Ministers would remain responsible for their decisions and not have them made for them by an unelected committee, as the Bill risks doing. Lord Herbert rightly argued that: “Ministerial responsibility for decisions matters because Ministers are accountable to Parliament and Parliament is in turn accountable to the people, while unelected committees are not.” The Government must explore these questions further as the Bill progresses and ensure that the answers do not jeopardise animal welfare, law being made based on science and evidence and ministerial responsibility.
Baroness Mallalieu began her speech by questioning whether the Bill was necessary and why it could not be done through a simple amendment to the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Baroness Mallalieu also warned the Conservative Party of the dangers of confusing animal rights with animal welfare, referring to her own Party’s mistakes in the past: “Gesture politics, which I fear is some little part of the motivation of this Bill, to enable the Government to say to the electorate, “This is what we did for animals”, is sadly not just a waste of parliamentary time when real animal welfare proposals just cannot get time but, as history has shown, often does little or nothing for the animals directly affected.”
And not only risks animal welfare, but also risks votes at the ballot box: “My party spent more than 200 hours of parliamentary time on the Hunting Act, which brought no benefit at all to the fox population—quite the contrary… So, was it good electorally for Labour? I suspect that that is part of the Government’s motivation behind this Bill. If so, Labour should have won general election after general election after all that effort—and the result we know. Of 100 rural seats that Labour held under Tony Blair, only 17 remain now.”
Here Baroness Mallalieu identifies a clear problem that has emerged within the Conservative Party, already present in the Labour Party for some time, that is animal rights being increasingly confused with animal welfare, and the result is that such legislation does not help advance animal welfare and goes against you at election time.
Lord Howard of Rising echoed our concerns that the Bill is very much open to attack from those with interests outwith the purpose of the Bill: “I fear that the Bill, as drafted, is so broad… that there is a danger that, with a little imagination, anyone wishing to act in a vexatious manner could use its good intentions to stray into unintended areas and clog up government business in ways that no one has yet thought of.”
Baroness Deech made a similar observation, warning that the committee formed through the Bill may one day be “hijacked, or there might be an unwarranted attack on country sports.” Lord Moylan made a related argument, that a future Secretary of State, perhaps not of the same thinking, will have the “power to reclassify [animals] almost without check.” A power, Lord Moylan noted was a “power greater than that given by God to Adam in the Garden of Eden, which… was restricted to the power to naming animals.”
A number of peers, including Lord Randall of Uxbridge, Baroness Fookes, Baroness Young of Old Scone and Baroness Hayman of Ullock all clearly saw the possibility, indeed desirability, that the proposed sentience committee should be able to drive its own animal rights agenda. We can therefore expect many amendments seeking to extend the scope of the legislation in ways that that might come to harm rural interests related to animals, such as farming, shooting and fishing.
Our concerns about how this legislation might be used were entirely vindicated by what was said during the debate. The potential for this Bill to become a means to attack our interests is real, and it could have a long-term adverse impact on those who live and work in the countryside. For these reasons, and more, the Alliance remains deeply concerned about the Bill. We will continue to make our views clear as the Bill progresses and continue to stand-up for the countryside in Parliament. Government must start listening to our concerns, and addressing them, especially as they are concerns shared by many. As Lord Forsyth of Drumlean noted: “I have to say that, in more than 35 years in both Houses, I have never seen a more badly drafted Bill - which has left me wondering what on earth its purpose is. It is a most extraordinary Bill.” It also has the potential to be an extremely dangerous one.