by Tim Bonner

The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill, which had its Second Reading in the House of Lords on Monday, received mixed reviews. The Bill is the government’s reaction to a vociferous online campaign referring to the transfer of EU legislation that recognises animal sentience into UK law. That campaign essentially involved Labour claiming that it believed animals were more sentient than the Conservatives did, and fiercely avoided the facts that the EU legislation was actually about giving due regard to the welfare of animals and that UK animal welfare legislation has been based on the recognition that animals are sentient. As our Chairman, Lord South Downs, put it in the debate on Monday:

“We have had animal welfare laws in our country for 200 years, since the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act was introduced. Our animal welfare standards go far beyond the minimums set by the EU. I respectfully disagree entirely with the proposition…that, somehow, animal welfare in this country was advanced by our subscription to the EU and the principle of sentience that it introduced. That is simply not the case. We need to remember that the principles of sentience are not in dispute. That we should treat animals properly is not in dispute.”

If the principles of animal sentience are already recognised in UK legislation, then the question has to arise as to why an entire act of parliament creating an Animal Sentience Committee to scrutinise government policy in relation to its regard for the welfare of sentient animals is necessary? Some peers, including our President, Baroness Mallalieu, suggested that it was not:

“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.”

The Alliance is clear that the sentience of animals is a fact, not a principle or a matter of debate. If the government feels obliged to bring explicit recognition of that fact into legislation then it could do so very simply by amending existing legislation. What is far less clear - and far more concerning - is why an Animal Sentience Committee to which Ministers would be answerable, is necessary. The concern of many who contributed to Monday’s debate was that the government is proposing a body that will inevitably be weaponised by those who are much more concerned about ideology than animal welfare.

When the Government previously tried to address animal sentience in the 2018 Animal Welfare (Sentencing and Sentience) Bill, it was withdrawn after universal criticism that it would have left almost any ministerial decision open to challenge by judicial review. This new sentience Bill seeks to avoid the threat of legal activism, but in doing so may have opened the door to animal rights extremism.

On that subject, on Monday (21st June), a debate on banning grouse shooting in response to a petition lodged by anti-shooting campaigners will take place in Westminster Hall. You can still lobby your MP to take part in that debate.

You can read more about the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill here.

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