by Ed Rowlandson

The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill was debated in the Upper House's Grand Committee on Tuesday 6 July, in which two fundamental questions were explored. Firstly, what is the Animal Sentience Committee - created by this Bill – meant to achieve? Secondly, will the Committee function and perform the role the current Government envisions it will? 

The 62 amendments tabled set-out to explore these questions in various ways over five hours, forcing the Bill into a second day of Grand Committee. This is notable in itself as it was first thought the Bill would sail through the House of Lords, unamended to the House of Commons. However, as the Minister, Lord Benyon said himself, it was not easy sailing, but rather one that felt like he were ‘sailing a path between Scylla and Charybdis’.

The wide remit of the Committee is evidently a concern felt by many Peers. Indeed, its remit has the potential to grow even wider, as Lord Hamilton of Epsom warned: ‘We ought to be careful about creating new layers of bureaucracy and a committee with enormous powers to interfere with other areas of government and end up not being accountable to Parliament at all’.

The Earl of Kinnoull asked the Minister: ‘What has been done to ensure that there are no unintended consequences?’ One unintended consequence was identified by Lord Moylan, who raised the concern that this Committee could one day risk the advancement of medical science: ‘It must be a cause for concern that the actions and inquiries of this committee could create a degree of inhibition in the advancement of medical science and the actions of medical scientists in continuing to promote medical science, because in some cases, and under the strictest controls and with the greatest degree of humanity, it is necessary for animal experimentation to be undertaken in order for drugs to be established as safe and for other processes.’

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 such. For example, additional words such as “all” before “due regard”, risk, as Lord Howard of Rising said: ‘the committee not reporting on whether due process has taken place but instead starting to opine or comment on the merits of policy and government decision. That is not its role, but it has the potential to create unnecessary delays and complications for legislation.’

Lord Howard of Rising also tabled an amendment to ensure the Committee only reports on future policy. This would again help contain the Committee’s power but also prevents past legislation having to be revisited and amended to appease the Committee, Lord Howard said: ‘Such a standstill could cause severe disruption and would place a huge burden on government departments and the committee. It is difficult to think how the committee could possibly cope from scratch with looking at large swathes of policy. The potential damage and the massive cost of stopping government work would be immensely onerous and impractical.’

Our President, Baroness Mallalieu, addressed the elephant in the room and conveyed the feelings of the majority when she said: ‘I am still mystified as to what the Government want it to do, because so little of the essential detail is contained in it that the end result could equally be a damp squib or a bolting horse which this and successive Governments will come to regret having mounted. Surely it is not good enough to say that the deficiencies apparent in the Bill will be supplemented later by guidance. Proper parliamentary scrutiny is necessary—indeed, essential—not mere guidance, which can be changed at the whim of any future Secretary of State.’

Lord Etherton identified one the biggest problems of the Bill: ‘the Bill is entirely negative, in the sense that it seeks to impose restrictions on the way people go about their work, the way they relax and enjoy themselves, and the ways in which they can give effect to their religious values.’ This is certainly true and why the Government must go to some lengths in attemptingto satisfy the questions asked, and to also ensure that the Bill does not become a potential weapon to attack those of its choosing’

The Minister, to the above concerns, replied: ‘What the Bill will do is help to inform Ministers about important welfare issues that should, in the interests of good policy-making, be a part of their overall considerations. The committee is there to scrutinise the policy decision-making process and whether it has taken all due account of important animal welfare issues. It is not there to determine the substance of ministerial decisions.’ That may be so, but the risks that other noble Peers had identified are still very much present and real – perhaps most aptly demonstrated by one Peer attempting to transform the Committee into a quango.

Lord Herbert of South Downs, our Chair, asked the Minister: ‘does he accept the views expressed by most noble Lords this afternoon that the Bill is imperfectly drafted, that the committee’s powers are too broad and that it needs to be constrained?

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean told the Minister how this imperfect drafting has: ‘has managed to unite the people who would like the Bill doing less with those who would like it to do more, because it does not set out clearly the functions of the new committee, its composition, budget and the terms of reference.’

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere had harsher words to express on the Bill, describing it as a: ‘rather skeletal, emaciated, haggard, malnourished Bill that can be expanded almost at random in any direction.’

Lord Mancroft tabled an amendment to expose the risk of the Committee being filled with animal rights activists and how anyone with or affiliated to such views should not be allowed to sit on it for: ‘Those who support animal rights often deliberately seek to muddle up the rights of animals with their welfare, knowing that most people are in favour of promoting the welfare of animals. But animal rights is an extreme doctrine; those who believe in animal rights are opposed to all use of animals for food, science, medicine and sport and the ownership of pets.’ On this point Lord Benyon agreed: ‘I am clear that we want people who will take a collegiate view and who are not there to represent some narrow sectoral or even extreme point of view.’

Indeed, after five hours, the Minister agreed to: ‘reflect on what he and other noble Lords have said. I hope that we can bring something forward at the next stage which will satisfy—not everybody—but some.’ This is significant progress. Afterall, it was thought that the Bill would progress unamended into the Statute Book. There will be many more opportunities to express concerns and crucially there will also be opportunities to express how this Bill can allay those concerns and get a Bill that is workable and does do as the Government wishes, help improve the welfare of animals. Something that we all agree on and all want.

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