by David Bean

The Countryside Alliance briefing on the Second Reading of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill in the House of Commons is available in full here.

SUMMARY

  • The Countryside Alliance fully supports legal recognition of the sentience of animals, although we would note that the sentience of animals has long been recognised, as evidenced by the animal welfare legislation passed by parliaments over nearly 200 years. However, we share the widespread concerns that have been expressed at each stage of the Bill in the House of Lords about the Animal Sentience Committee this Bill would create. Concerns have focused on the membership of the Committee and how it might be structured, operate and be resourced. The Bill has not been updated to address any of these concerns and is essentially the same as introduced.
  • While providing a little more detail, the Animal Sentience Committee’s draft Terms of Reference, published ahead of Report Stage in the Lords, provide little reassurance or clarity. Terms of reference are easily changed or amended; they are not an adequate substitute for good legislation.
  • According to the Bill as written, the role of the Committee is not to scrutinise the substance of policy decisions, but the process by which those decisions were reached and whether all due regard had been had to animal welfare. By contrast the draft Terms of Reference seem to suggest that the Committee could have a role in scrutinising policies. This would be at odds with the Bill as it stands.
  • The Bill allows the Committee to examine past policy decisions and implementation, so it could opine on any historical policy and report that the animal welfare consequences had not been duly considered. In highlighting and calling into question established policy it could start to drive its own agenda.
  • The Bill fails to provide any definition of what amounts to ‘policy’. Does policy include decisions not to do something, as well as to do something?
  • The Bill provides no definition of sentience, perhaps because the issue is so hotly debated among scientists. Sentience is probably a scale and we are more inclined to recognise it in animals that seem to react as we do. Recognition of sentience was extended at the Report Stage in the Lords to cephalopods and decapod crustacea, In addition to vertebrates (other than humans).
  • The Countryside Alliance believes that the Bill lacks the necessary detail and safeguards to ensure the Sentience Committee cannot be hijacked or extend its reach beyond its legally defined role. There need to be safeguards to ensure that the committee does not become a Trojan horse, used to attack proper wildlife management, farming or the economic well-being and way of life of our rural communities.
  • We would note the recent concerns expressed in the House of Lords in a debate on 6 January on two joint reports from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee and the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. The debate “Skeleton Bills and Delegated Powers” highlighted the growing trend of government to rely on delegated legislation and skeleton bills, with implications for the ability of Parliament to scrutinise executive action and know clearly what it is that Parliament is being asked to consent to. As Lord Lisvane noted: “The Government’s own definition of “good law” is that it is “necessary, effective, clear, coherent and accessible””, yet the Sentience Bill clearly fails to meet that definition. The Sentience Bill is largely a skeleton Bill. Parliament is being asked to approve a new statutory committee, which will report to Parliament, but a Committee lacking clarity as to its powers, its independence and its resources.
  • We would also draw attention to the Lords Third Reading debate on the Bill on 13 December 2021, and in particular the comments of the Rt Hon Lord Herbert of South Downs from the Government benches and Baroness Mallalieu QC from the Opposition benches: 

Lord Herbert:

 “…The Government rejected every other amendment put to them. We pointed out that sentience is not actually defined in the legislation; apparently that does not matter. What matters is that Ministers must have regard to sentience, even if we do not know what it actually is. We asked for safeguards to ensure the expertise of the committee’s members. We were told that such protections were not necessary. We asked for constraints to the committee’s scope. We were told that limits to the committee’s unfettered remit were not necessary either. Crucially, we asked why the balancing provisions in the Lisbon treaty, which specifically exempt religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage, were not included and why the Bill goes so much further than the EU measure it claims to replace. We were told that this balancing provision was not necessary either. In fact, apparently no change was necessary.

The Government have been able to ignore every concern expressed, largely on this side, by relying on the kindness of strangers—uncritical support for the measures that would have guaranteed the defeat of any amendment……”

Baroness Mallalieu:

“…. the former Master of the Rolls, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, told us during the passage of the Bill that it creates a magnet for judicial review; when the foremost vet in this House, the noble Lord, Lord Trees, who supports the Bill, tells us that its scope needs definition and its focus sharpened on to future policy decisions; when the former Leader of the House, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, the former leader of the party opposite, the noble Lord, Lord Howard, and many others, tell the Government that they need to think again, yet they resist and reject all amendments, save for a small number of government ones, it makes me wonder whether this House has actual value as a scrutinising House when they have the comfort of a large majority in another place and know that they are able to push defective Bills through almost unamended there…”

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