by Countryside Alliance

Countryside Alliance Chief Executive, Tim Bonner, was published in the Western Morning News this week in response to growing concerns about the proposed Animal Sentience Committee.

 

A copy of Tim's article, which was originally published in the WMN on Monday 12th July 2021, can be found below. 

"In May this year, the Queen’s Speech was noteworthy for how little it contained about the government’s legislative programme. Within it, however, was the much-misunderstood Animal Sentience Bill, which was debated this week in the Lord’s Grand Committee.

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 the Labour Party claiming that it believed animals were more sentient than the Conservatives did.

The recognition of animal sentience and the consequent need for animal welfare laws is nothing new. The Countryside Alliance is clear that the sentience of animals is a fact, not a principle or a matter of debate. Of course, recognition of sentience and the welfare needs of animals is not the same as recognising that animals have rights, in the sense that human beings have rights, and it is important that animal welfare is not confused with animal rights.

The reality is that as a country, we have always accepted that animals are sentient and have 200 years of animal welfare laws to back that up, which notably began with the introduction of the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act in 1822. We already, rightly, have robust laws in place to punish those found to be mistreating animals in their possession. Successive governments and parliaments have recognised the fact of animal sentience both prior to, and since our membership of the EU, as reflected in the body of animal welfare legislation on the Statute Book, including the Animal Welfare Act 2006. It is misleading and incorrect to suggest that animal welfare in this country was advanced by our subscription to the EU and the principle of sentience that it introduced. 

Welfare laws in this country go far beyond the minimum standards set by the EU, and it is unclear why simply putting the fact of animal sentience into a law would achieve any improvement in animal welfare.  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 raising considerable concern - is why an Animal Sentience Committee to which Ministers would be answerable, is necessary. 

The concern of many who have so far contributed to debates in House of Lords is that the committee in which what the government is proposing will inevitably be weaponised by those who are much more concerned about ideology than animal welfare. 

There remain several deeply troubling unanswered questions about the proposed Animal Sentience Committee. We know that members of it will be appointed by the Secretary of State for the Environment. We do not know who these members will be and what experience they are expected to bring. Will they be farmers and people with expert knowledge about animals, or PETA activists with an animal rights agenda? We know that the Committee ‘may’ produce a report in relation to ‘any government policy’ that ‘is being or has been formulated or implemented’. Understandably, it is this detail which has started to raise eyebrows in Whitehall. 

Although the purpose of the Committee is to report on due process, and not on policy decisions, the Bill is drafted in such a way the Committee’s action risk doing just that. For example, additional words such as “all” before “due regard”, risk not reporting on whether due process has taken place but instead starting to comment on the merits of policy and government decision.

Given that the Committee’s remit also covers the entirety of government policy, from formulation to implementation, the Committee will need huge resources. It could look not just at wildlife management and farming practices but also planning policy, trade policy, or where we source medicines for the NHS. In short, it risks bringing the government’s own agenda to a standstill.

As Alliance President Baroness Mallalieu pointed out in her contribution to the Grand Committee, it 'has the makings of a giant and every expensive quango' if 'it is to roam across every government department and every policy, which would include aspects of defence, medicine and trade, quite apart from agriculture.’

Then there is the obvious question of accountability in decision making. It is one thing for Ministers to be guided but it is another to hand over decisions to bodies that cannot properly be held to account for them. Ministerial responsibility for decisions must lie exclusively with Ministers because Ministers are accountable to Parliament and Parliament is in turn accountable to the people. Unelected committees, shrouded in mystery, are not. 

The Alliance is clear that the principles of sentience are not in dispute. What we do not want is to find ourselves subcontracting decisions to bodies that are accountable neither to us, nor to the public. Nor can we accept a Trojan horse committee, used by extreme animal rights activists and environmentalists, to attack wildlife management, farming or the economic well-being and rural way of life."

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