by David Bean

During last night’s House of Commons debate on the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill, the Government agreed to accept Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown’s amendment requiring that the new Animal Sentience Committee’s recommendations “respect legislative or administrative provisions and customs relating in particular to religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage”. This restores a Lisbon Treaty provision that applied in the UK while we were members of the EU.

The Countryside Alliance helped promote this amendment within Parliament, in concert with the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) and others. Tim Bonner, Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance, said:

“We have been clear that our biggest concern with the Animal Sentience Bill is its implications for rural life under a potential future government that is hostile to rural interests. While the risk remains that an unfriendly Defra Secretary might try to pack the Animal Sentience Committee with ideologues and use their work as cover for implementing damaging policies, this amendment will make it harder for them to get away with it. The Committee will be required to respect religious, cultural and regional customs and to demonstrate, in its reports, that it has done so. This requirement will be key to future scrutiny of the Committee’s work. We and others will hold them to it.”

In addition to Sir Geoffrey’s amendment, the Countryside Alliance also worked with Greg Smith MP to promote a series of amendments highlighting other deficiencies in the Bill. While Sir Geoffrey’s was the only amendment to be accepted, Mr Smith succeeded in focusing the debate. In relation to concerns about appointments to the Committee, he said his amendments would:

“set certain criteria for appointments to the committee to ensure the necessary expertise and exclude persons who may have other agendas—those seeking to offer not dispassionate advice, but partisan and ideological musings. At the moment, the Bill simply allows my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State or whoever holds that job in the future to appoint whoever they like.”

Later in the debate, David Simmonds MP pointed out:

“My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) made some extremely clear and effective remarks. He made a valid point about the need to ensure that in the composition of any committee, we exclude not those with connections to interest groups but those who have expressed a view that would prejudge their position on a matter where they were required to be independent. That is an essential consideration. We make that same requirement for those who sit on juries or deal with court cases.”

Responding to the debate the Minister, Jo Churchill MP, promised:

“The Secretary of State will be responsible for appointments, in line with the governance code on public appointments, under which we can already exclude people from extremist organisations. Applicants from any organisation – we have heard on several occasions both sides of the argument – must declare potential conflicts of interest, in order to be transparent and so that we can rely on the judgments.”

Between these remarks and other pledges to focus the Committee on future policy and genuine science, the ministerial responses to Mr Smith’s amendments and speech painted a significantly more encouraging picture of the Bill. The courts do pay attention to Parliament’s intentions in passing legislation, so we are extremely grateful to him for securing these assurances on the parliamentary record.

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