[Relevant documents: Oral evidence taken before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The United Kingdom was the first country in the world to pass legislation to protect animals with the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act 1822. In 1876, we were the first country to pass legislation regulating experiments on animals. In 1875, we were the first country to introduce measures to improve conditions in slaughterhouses. This House also passed the landmark Protection of Animals Act 1911, an Act emulated by many other countries around the world.
More recently, there have been further improvements. One of the first actions taken by Margaret Thatcher’s Government was the introduction of the Farm Animal Welfare Council, announced to this House in July 1979 by Peter Walker. That Government then updated the law on animal experiments with the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, which remains an international gold standard. The Labour party has also made its contribution: our Parliament updated the 1911 Act with the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which introduced a robust framework and powers for protecting all kept animals in England and Wales.
Every piece of animal welfare legislation passed by this House since 1822 has implicitly recognised the sentience of animals. During the European Union era, the UK was a signatory to article 13 of the Lisbon treaty, which offered a form of legal recognition of the sentience of animals. Although that did not really mean very much, we believe we can now do better through this Bill.
I note that the Secretary of State did not mention the ban on hunting with dogs—a law that needs to be strengthened—which constituents up and down the country are still concerned about. Why should this not be the Government to deal with that once and for all?
We have had many pieces of legislation; I sought in the time I had to list some of the key ones, including the 2006 Act.
How we treat animals, and the legislation we have to govern animal welfare, is a hallmark of a civilised society. We should be constantly looking to improve and refine our legislation in this area. That is why the Government have committed to introducing this new law on animal sentience.
I take this opportunity to thank my noble friend Lord Benyon of Englefield for his work bringing the Bill through the other place. The current version underwent close scrutiny in the other place, as Members would expect. This is a succinct Bill that offers clarity and avoids creating a wide avenue for the judicial review of Government decisions, while ensuring that animal welfare is properly considered as Governments formulate policy.
As the MP who I think made the first attempt to put sentience recognition into UK law with my amendment to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, I warmly welcome this Bill. I congratulate the A Better Deal for Animals coalition for the work it has put into it. The Secretary of State mentions the scrutiny in the other place. Does he have sympathy with the concern raised there about how the Bill’s current wording would mean that the Animal Sentience Committee can look only at the adverse effects on the welfare of animals as sentient beings? Would he consider looking at the positive opportunities in considering those sentience issues, too?
I think this matter was dealt with extensively by my noble Friend, Lord Benyon. The key thing is that an adverse effect can mean a failure to make a change or consider a change that would have a positive impact on the welfare of animals, so I do not share any concerns about that expression.
I thank my hon. Friend Neil Parish for his Committee’s work in scrutinising our proposals.
The Bill proposes four things. First, it establishes an Animal Sentience Committee, whose members the Secretary of State will appoint on the basis of expertise and experience. Secondly, it tasks that committee with scrutinising Ministers’ policy formation and the implementation of decisions. In each instance, it will publish a report containing its views on whether Ministers have had all due regard to the welfare needs of animals as sentient beings.
Thirdly, Ministers will be held to account through a duty to respond to the committee’s reports by means of a written statement to Parliament, and Parliament must receive such responses within three months. Finally, the wording of the Bill offers recognition that non-human vertebrates—that is, animals with a spine—and additionally decapod crustaceans, such as lobsters, and cephalopod molluscs, such as octopuses, are sentient. That means they are capable of experiencing pain or suffering. The Bill contains a delegated power for Ministers to add by regulation other species to the definition of animals. That is to be used if there is good scientific evidence that those particular species are sentient.
The Bill does include birds, since they are vertebrates, and it includes fish, since they are vertebrates. I point out that those particular animals have been recognised in our law as sentient since at least 1911.
I want to be clear about what the Bill does and does not do. While its aim is to improve the policy and decision-making processes of Government, the committee’s reports will not bind Ministers to any particular course of action. Ministers will remain free to determine the right balance between animal welfare and other important considerations.
Devolved matters are also excluded from the Bill’s provisions. The Scottish Government have their own counterpart to the Animal Sentience Committee already, while Wales and Northern Ireland have the powers to establish equivalent bodies, should they wish to do so.
It is also important to understand that the Bill tasks the Animal Sentience Committee with scrutinising the process by which Ministers arrive at policy decisions. It is not there to tell Ministers what decisions they should make or to critique those decisions. Instead, it is there to provide technical assessments of how well a given Department obtained and assessed relevant evidence on the animal welfare effects of the policy in question.
As I said, we do not believe that the Bill creates a cause of action for judicial review, for the simple reason that the obligation on a Minister is to respond to the report within three months, and that response can deal with any recommendation or observation put forward by the committee.
My right hon. Friend is making a strong case for the Bill. Does he agree that Britain continues to lead the world in animal welfare and that the Bill enhances our role?
Yes. As I set out at the beginning of the debate, the United Kingdom has always been a world leader in animal welfare. We were the first country in the world to introduce animal welfare legislation; we recognised the sentience of animals as long ago as 1822. We have been in the vanguard of new legislation in the area over time, and the Bill demonstrates our continued leadership.
Our approach will promote fair and consistent consideration of animal welfare throughout Government policy decisions, but without impinging on the freedom of Ministers to make those policy decisions, for which they are democratically accountable for Parliament.
For all those reasons, I commend this short Bill to the House.
I believe that across the country and across this House we care deeply about the welfare of animals. In that context, I am happy to reassure the Secretary of State that we support the Bill and will not divide the House on its Second Reading.
Successive Parliaments have sought to ensure that the law protects animals from cruelty inflicted by humans. The Opposition are proud that it was the Labour Government who brought in the Animal Welfare Act 2006, protecting the treatment of domestic animals and making owners and keepers responsible for ensuring that the welfare needs of their animals are fully met. The Opposition do not distinguish; we believe that all animals deserve protection, whether they are on a farm, at home as a pet, at large in the wild or in the sea.
The Government’s chaotic handling of our leaving the EU has left many gaps in protection and in law. The Bill will address one of those gaps by putting back into domestic legislation the recognition that animals are sentient beings. That issue has been in limbo since we left the EU, and I am pleased that it has now been reconciled. Formal legal recognition of animal sentience sends a clear message that as a country we are committed to protecting the welfare of animals—provided, of course, that the Government make sure that they deliver on what the Bill purports to promise.
What is difficult to reconcile, however, is that while animal welfare standards are constantly being raised here in the UK, the same is not true across the world. I am very proud that British farmers are leading the way, but it is a fact that many are facing a cliff edge, and with changes to EU subsidy favouring landowners keen to diversify away from farming to biodiversity schemes, it has come at the worst possible time. We are seeing food left rotting in the fields and some 20,000 pigs culled, all because of entirely foreseeable labour shortages.
To make matters worse, although the Government talk a good game on animal welfare, trade deals have been signed that not only undermine British farmers and producers, but allow the UK and its Government essentially to outsource animal cruelty in the supply chain to other countries. Take the UK-Australia trade deal: while we maintain high standards here in the UK and higher costs as a result, Australia allows intensive farming, which means that cattle may spend their entire life locked away without seeing a blade of grass, not to mention being trucked for 48 hours without rest, food or water, often in very hot conditions that would be illegal in the UK.
The Government could have used the Bill as an opportunity to address animal welfare concerns relating to those trade deals. As the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals acknowledges, the free trade agreement with Australia does not give any guarantee about equivalence of standards for imported products. We share the RSPCA’s concern that that could open the door to imported products such as hormone-fed beef and chlorine-washed chicken, produced to lower standards that would be illegal in the UK. Will the Secretary of State commit to amending the Bill to prevent that, or at least to bringing forward measures that will address those widely held concerns about how our domestic legislation interacts with trade deals that have so far been negotiated and with those negotiated in future?
On British soil, action is being taken by the National Trust and the Welsh Government, but the UK Government seem intent on turning a blind eye to the abuse of the Hunting Act 2004. Lessons are literally being given on how to get around the law of the land, and it is leading to live chases of foxes in this country.
Maybe I should have asked the Minister this question, but does the hon. Member think that when the Government are creating the committee to advise Ministers, it would be advisable to consider an open and transparent process of appointment in which appointees, no matter who they are, must declare their work and their participation in events such as foxhunting?
I think that, with every public appointment made, we need transparency and we need to ensure that those around the table are there for the right reasons, and not to look after their own interests. Where there is a genuine conflict of interest—where any normal member of the public would look at it and question whether the motives of that person were in the interests of the country at large—of course that would not be right. It is a fact, particularly during the Boxing day hunt, although it was a day delayed, that the Government were completely absent. The country was lining up to criticise the clear abuse that has been taking place for a period, where loopholes are being exploited and the Government do not take action. On one hand we say that we are an animal-loving nation and that this Government want to protect animals, but on the other we see what is happening in plain sight, but do not see anything like the action that is required.
We are pleased that the Bill has reached this House, after well over six months in the other place, where it benefited from some notable improvements. We should be grateful to their lordships for their work. I give a special mention to my colleague and the former shadow Environment Secretary, Baroness Hayman, for the work that she has done and led in that place. As a result, the Government rightly concede that octopi, lobsters and the like should receive protection upfront in the Bill, rather than waiting to be considered by the Animal Sentience Committee when eventually it meets.
Further improvements are needed, which we and campaigners will continue to argue for in Committee. We share concerns expressed about clause 2 limiting consideration to ways in which the policy might have an adverse effect on the welfare of sentient beings. We understand the legal advice is that that itself does not prevent the committee from recommending positive steps to enhance animal welfare, and that should be made clear in the terms of reference, but surely it would make far more sense to be upfront and have that in the Bill.
We agree with the argument that the Bill should require Ministers proactively to set up a cross-Government animal sentience strategy, and regularly to report to Parliament on how Government policy is working in that regard. The duty simply to respond to a report could allow Ministers simply to dismiss a committee’s recommendation in that regard. That would fall far short not just of the Bill’s aims of enshrining animal welfare, but of the nation’s aspiration that we translate our narrative of being an animal-loving nation into the law that governs the land in which we live.
Animals are capable of bringing us huge joy, and it is right to ensure that they avoid avoidable suffering. We strongly support the need for the Bill, but the Government must recognise that if they say one thing but do another, the public will be rightly critical of the claims being made in support of the Bill. I urge the Secretary of State: where we see that the Government are saying one thing about the Bill but doing another on trade agreements or on foxhunting, we must show the world what leadership is and take action on both those fronts.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to catch your eye in this important but short debate, on a short and, in my view, unnecessary Bill. Of course we can all accept that animals can suffer and therefore we are obliged to ensure that we maintain our high standards of welfare. That animals can experience pain and suffering has been implicit in British animal law, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State so rightly laid out, since 1835 when Parliament passed the landmark Cruelty to Animals Act. However, the lack of definition in this Bill or use of science to decide whether an animal is sentient is concerning; it even lacks a definition of what sentience means. It is concerning that we should be passing a Bill with such a lack of detail.
There is a huge rural community in this country that is passionate about wildlife and eager to protect the environment and their activities. The Angling Trust and the British Association for Shooting and Conservation—I declare an interest; it is the secretariat for the all-party group on animal welfare and environment which I chair—represent more than 3 million fishing and shooting enthusiasts in the UK. The Bill could deliver another weapon into the hands of litigious animal rights groups that could damage both Government and those who live and work with animals.
Shooting, conservation and angling are highly important for the UK economy. Shooting contributes about £2 billion to GDP and supports the equivalent of 74,000 full-time jobs. Angling is estimated to be worth £4 billion to the UK economy and responsible for upwards of 40,000 jobs.
We need to make sure that the Animal Sentience Committee set up by the Bill does not have any unforeseen or perverse consequences, and that the Bill is not introduced simply as a public relations exercise to meet the demands of activist groups and the tabloids. A sentience committee does not require legislation. It could have been established by the Secretary of State at any time. He has already told us that the members will be Secretary of State appointments, but that covers a multitude of types of people who might be appointed. Perhaps the Minister could give us a little more idea of the type of people who will be appointed to the committee.
According to clause 2(1), the scope of the Bill encompasses:
“When any government policy is being or has been formulated or implemented”.
In other words, it gives huge breadth of remit to the committee. So what will be the committee’s resources in terms of funds and secretariat? Would it not be more sensible to limit its remit to the areas currently covered by the European law on sentience, on which my party’s manifesto said we would legislate?
Will the new committee by statute confuse who advises Ministers on animal welfare when the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs already has an Animal Welfare Committee with a wide remit covering all animals, but not by statute? Will the new sentience committee, which is implemented by statute, be superior to the Animal Welfare Committee, which was established decades ago and works perfectly well? Or will it be a sub-committee of the Animal Welfare Committee? If so, will the Animal Welfare Committee be required to approve its reports before publication? What will be the difference between the remit of the two committees?
There is no requirement in the Bill for the committee to consider the public interest or the legislative or administrative provisions and customs of the UK relating in particular to religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage. In a meat-eating society where vertebrate animals are farmed and hunted for food, and used in scientific and medical research under strict legal limits, the fact that the committee is not required to consider the public interest could lead to a conflict between activist groups and the Government.
Will the Minister therefore balance the requirement to have “all due regard” to animal welfare with a requirement to have regard to the public interest? Can the Minister give an assurance that the medical, scientific, farming, fishing and shooting interests will be represented? This is crucial, because otherwise it is going to breed a great deal of resentment in the rural communities.
There are other ways of recognising sentience in legislation. We could have followed New Zealand’s example and amended the Animal Welfare Act 2006 merely to include sentience. That is all that needed to happen.
Policy and legislation should always be science and evidence-based. It is extraordinary that there is no definition of sentience in the Bill. Even though 80% of the respondents to the Government consultation supported the inclusion of a definition, it still is not there. Instead, clause 5(2) says that the Secretary of State
“may by regulations … bring invertebrates of any description within the meaning of “animal” for the purposes of this Act”.
But there is no requirement to show scientific proof that non-vertebrates are sentient. Philosophers and scientists have been arguing for centuries about which non-vertebrate animals are sentient and what that actually means, and here we have a Bill that does not clarify that debate.
The Bill originated in demands for sentience to be explicitly written into law after Brexit, but it does not contain the safeguards within the EU law on sentience. EU law on sentience is limited and balanced. It applies to agriculture, fisheries, transport, the internal market, research and technological and space policies. Member states—this is a particular part of European law—are required to have
“full regard to the welfare requirements of animals, while respecting the legislative or administrative provisions and customs of the Member States relating in particular to religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage.”
I will try to get an amendment included in the Bill—I hope that the Government will support the amendment, which I will table shortly—stating that “the recommendations by the committee must respect the legislative or administrative provisions and customs relating in particular to religious rights, cultural traditions and regional heritage”. I say tactfully to my right hon. Friend that, as that is the wording in European law, I hope very much that he might consider such an amendment, so that we can at least focus the committee’s work, instead of it having the very wide-ranging remit that it now has.
Will the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Jo Churchill, give us an assurance that nothing in the Bill will have an impact on activities conducted with all regard to animal welfare within the law? Does she believe, as some do, that sentience confers rights and, if so, what rights are conferred?
In conclusion, clarity, clarity, clarity is required on animal welfare advice in government. I am talking about the composition and remit of the committee, the balance between the public interest and sentience, and assurances that legal activities, such as research, farming and country sports, will not be damaged by the Bill. I say to the Secretary of State and the Minister: please could we have an answer to that final question when the Minister sums up?
Animal welfare is a devolved issue and the scope of the Bill is largely England-only. With that established, the Scottish National party broadly welcomes the legislation and is pleased that the UK Government are following our lead in this area. The Scottish Government pledged to maintain high animal welfare standards after we left the EU and, in June 2020, established the Scottish Animal Welfare Commission, which is an independent body of leading animal welfare experts responsible for developing expert recommendations on issues relating to animal welfare and sentience. The Bill seeks to replicate its evidence-based policymaking success and expert-driven approach.
The SNP and the Scottish Government take animal welfare extremely seriously. Our party has been vocal in addressing concerns at UK level, and the Scottish Government’s programme for government committed to taking steps to strengthen animal welfare legislation. Each financial year, the commission must prepare a work plan setting out how it intends to perform its functions. It then produces an annual report, laid before the Scottish Parliament, detailing how it has delivered against the work plan. It has the power to establish committees and sub-committees, and the first meeting of the sentience sub-committee took place in November 2021. That group has the function of reviewing sentience-related issues, filtering and prioritising the commission’s programme of work.
The establishment of the commission offered an opportunity post Brexit to replicate article 13. Given that since January 2021, for the first time in more than two decades, there has been no legal requirement for the welfare of animals as sentient beings to be considered in the UK Government’s policy process, it really is about time this place implemented its replacement.
Concerns have been raised about the membership of England’s Animal Sentience Committee, as well as its resources, structure and operation. The Bill has not been updated to address any of those concerns and is essentially the same as when it was introduced, which I note created quite a stooshie in the other place. In my view, membership regulations ought to be considered for the Bill, as should the structures in which they may operate. As an example of where issues could occur, will foxes be considered as sentient beings and will they be granted such protections by the committee, or will that be another cultural flashpoint?
We recommend that the committee avoids being too prescriptive—I know that is the Minister’s view—but rather follows the lead of the evidence-led SAWC. The commission reports welfare policies and recommendations to Scottish Ministers, and just as it has a statutory duty to publish any such advice, the Animal Sentience Committee must also publish its reporting. The Scottish Government have often acted upon the recommendations of the commission. Sensible and pragmatic solutions to policy issues such as beaver reintroduction and management of deer have been taken forward on the basis of the commission’s advice. The commission has also strongly welcomed and worked on the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Act 2020 and the Animal Welfare (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals) (Scotland) Regulations 2021.
Let me give an example of what England’s new Animal Sentience Committee might examine. Following concerns raised by a number of animal welfare groups, the Scottish Government announced a review of the trade and importation of exotic pets, and of potential threats to animal health and welfare, human health, and native species in Scotland. An interim report was published last year by the Scottish Animal Welfare Commission outlining concerns about the welfare of exotic pets, including their sourcing, breeding, transport and keeping. I understand that the Minister of State is keeping tabs on that work. We will of course be happy if the UK Government make use of the final report when it is published and carry out their own investigations. The Scottish National party also welcomes the Bill’s recognition of cephalopods and decapod crustaceans as sentient.
Although the Bill largely applies only to England, there are areas of it that the SNP believes must be strengthened, notably in respect of animal cosmetics and scientific procedures, which are matters reserved to the UK Government. There has been some mention of European Union regulations today. In September last year, the European Parliament voted for an EU-wide action plan with clear objectives as well as, crucially, timelines for the phasing out of the use of animals in research, regulatory testing and education. It envisages that happening through the reduction, refining and replacement of procedures on live animals for scientific purposes, as soon as it is scientifically possible and with no lowering of the level of protection for human health and the environment. In fact, the EU has leapt in front of the UK on animal welfare standards. We call on the UK Government to reclaim the leadership on this issue that they have shown in the past.
The Bill legislates to enshrine the ability of animals to experience joy and feel suffering and pain, but unfortunately the UK Government do not seek to recognise that animals undergoing scientific experiments or Ministry of Defence tests have rights to sentience; they are excluded from protections. A written question from Cat Smith revealed that the Ministry of Defence has carried out nearly 59,000 experimental procedures on animals since 2009. The SNP therefore calls for greater transparency in the animal research industry, and for a commitment in the Bill on the sentience of animals and their welfare rights in relation to the outdated methods used in animal testing and military experiments.
My hon. Friend has made a good point about experimentation on animals by the MOD. Does she share my concern about the fact that it includes primates? As recently as 2018, 56 marmosets were subject to such experimentation.
I very much share my hon. Friend’s concern, and I will say more about that later. I genuinely believe that the general public are not aware of the extent and nature of these experiments, or of which animals are used in them. If amendments to the Bill are tabled and accepted in Committee, that may help the public to appreciate what is going on, and may help to reduce reliance on such experiments.
Every two minutes in the UK, a dog, cat, rabbit, rat, monkey, goat, sheep, mouse, or fish suffers from brutal animal testing conducted on it against its sentience and welfare rights, but a survey conducted in 2020 by the UK charity FRAME—the Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments—found that 84% of respondents would not buy a cosmetics product if they knew that it, or one of its ingredients, had been tested on animals. Animals in laboratories can legally be poisoned with toxic chemicals, shot, irradiated, gassed, blown up, drowned, stabbed, burned, starved, or restrained to the point at which they develop ulcers or heart failure. They can have their bones broken or their limbs amputated. They can be subject to inescapable electric shocks, driven to depression, deprived of sleep to the point of brain damage, or infected with diseases.
A YouGov poll commissioned by Cruelty Free International shows that people in Scotland and Wales believe that more should be done to prioritise humane and human-relevant science. The findings reveal that seven out of 10 adults living in Scotland and Wales find it unacceptable to use animals for experiments when alternative non-animal research methods are available. In addition, more than three quarters of adults living in Scotland and Wales believe that alternatives to animal tests should be a funding priority in the UK for science and innovation, and a majority in Scotland and Wales want deadlines for phasing out animal tests. I look forward to further discussions on that as the Bill goes through its stages.
When Scottish and Welsh residents were asked about use of specific species in research, they consistently said that it was unacceptable to test on dogs, cats and monkeys, yet despite those public concerns, the UK remains one of the top users in Europe of primates and dogs in experiments. The more we understand animals’ sentience, capabilities and emotions, the more the idea of granting rights to animals is worth taking seriously, urgently. The Scottish National party supports the Bill but urges the Government to address those ongoing issues.
When I looked at the Bill, I tried first, as I do with any Bill, to work out its purpose and who or what it is trying to assist. I must say that I am still far from having the answer to either question. Actually, the more I look at the Bill, listen to experts and read the record of proceedings in the other place, the more confused I am about what we are trying to do.
While everyone knows what animal welfare is and values what the Bill is intended to do, nothing in it, and no one, can either define animal sentience or say how it is measured. As a result, the phrase becomes a kind of forerunner of what science may, but does not yet, tell us. The Bill is effectively a statement of direction, but does not quite know where to start or where it will finish. It does not define animal sentience, so Ministers will have no gauge to work against. As a result, we legislators are in effect being asked to vote blind on it. The new committee will accordingly have to make things up as it goes along.
At the same time, various lobbyists will push the committee towards reviewing everything that they see as being important to their various causes. If the committee does not produce many—or enough—reports, it will be attacked for inaction. However, if it produces too many reports, it will be attacked for exercising power without democratic oversight or care for costs or whatever. If the Government fail to act on the committee’s views, they will be attacked for inaction, or possibly judicially reviewed. If they do act on them, people could claim that such proposals should come from those who are democratically elected, rather than from an unanswerable committee, or they could say that the Government are using the committee as a stalking horse to avoid taking the blame for proposals that they might think look a bit unpopular. In effect, whichever way one looks at the proposals, they are fraught with problems on every side. One has to wonder why we are doing this. What is there to gain from the Bill other than some short-term, soft publicity because it is somehow about being nice to animals?
Of course, as was mentioned in the other place, in reality, the Bill is not just about public relations, because those involved in minority areas of activity in our national life are realising that it could easily be used against them. Yes, I did see the assurances that the Government gave in the other place that the Bill would not attack the Jewish and Muslim religious animal slaughter practices of shechita and halal, and blatantly yes, the Bill makes no direct attack on those practices, but it does open up indirect lines of attack that could easily be used to prejudice or damage those minority religious practices. Importantly, as was explained clearly by my hon. Friend Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, the Bill has no exemptions on the grounds of religious rights, cultural traditions and regional heritage, although those exemptions were included in the equivalent EU legislation. That should be corrected; I will be with him on that.
If the new committee were, for instance, to come up with regular reports against non-stunning slaughter practices, the pressure for change would quickly switch to Ministers. I would defend those religious practices, although that is not today’s debate. However, it is relevant to argue that any such changes should be formulated and debated by Ministers and then Parliament, not the new committee. If science does eventually tell us what sentience means and how it can be measured, and if all animal welfare will need to be improved as a result, why farm that out to a committee rather than deal with it directly? The committee will be appointed by the Ministers of the day, and let us acknowledge that the Ministers whom we politically support today will not be there on a change of Government. For that matter, if there is to be a committee, why does it have to be set up by statute if it will have no executive powers?
I was very surprised by the unwillingness of Ministers to engage on this issue or accept amendments in the other place, despite the Bill being hugely contentious. I hope that attitude will now change. There seems to be a lack of focus on what the committee will do, and the possible implications. It seems that it will have a full roving remit across Whitehall, although how it would interact with Departments is vague, as is how it would interact with the existing animal welfare machinery, specifically the animal welfare committee. We do not know. Why not make this new committee part of the animal welfare committee?
As chairman of the British Shooting Sports Council and a Member with a rural constituency, I have been approached by many to voice their concerns that the Bill is being used as a smokescreen to enable attacks on farming practices and wildlife management processes, as well as field sports. In the last few years, for instance, the lobby against game shooting has become increasingly litigious and now regularly uses judicial review to query a wide range of shooting issues, such as where game shooting can take place and what can be shot using general licences. The idea that such people will not attempt judicial review of decisions taken by Ministers on the back of the new committee’s findings is, frankly, unrealistic.
I predict that the Bill will: complicate many rural activities; add complexity and require legal opinions and court appearances; and add cost and bureaucracy. Despite the Bill being welcomed by the Opposition, it is, to my mind, a poor piece of legislation.
It is good to follow Mr Djanogly. I do not agree with most things he said, but he made a few points that I liked and will come to in my remarks. I welcome the Bill and I will support it today.
The Bill has come a long way since it was first introduced. It is a really good example of how Bills should be improved, especially through prelegislative scrutiny, rather than being stuck in the House of Lords. Many of the amendments made in the House of Lords should have been made in prelegislative scrutiny, so that we did not have a reformed Bill coming to the House of Commons.
I echo the remarks made by the new shadow Environment Secretary, and especially the thanks to Baroness Hayman for her sterling work in the other place, particularly on including cephalopods and decapods in the scope of the Bill. I welcome the fact that the era of boiling lobsters alive will come to an end. That is down to the work of Baroness Hayman and her colleagues in the House of Lords, and is long overdue.
The Bill is not really necessary, so to a certain extent the remarks from the hon. Members for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) and for Huntingdon were right in one respect: this really should have been mapped over in Brexit legislation. Of all the rules passed by the European Union during our membership, this is the only one that the Government chose not to map over. Why was that? Was it because there is an ideological divide over animal sentience? Was it because of a real desire to change the situation? Or was it because the Government fell foul of a debate that led to an outcry? This should not have been necessary; the measures should have been mapped over in Brexit legislation, and we should be spending our time looking at how we can improve animal welfare, rather than correcting the mistakes by the Government in the Brexit negotiations.
The Bill needs to work, however, and it is important that we get the detail right. Further work is needed to do that. Some of it is in the very short Bill, but the majority is in the terms of reference that accompany it. It is a shame that the Government have not put more effort into explaining what is in the terms of reference, because much of the detail about how the Animal Sentience Committee will work is in there. Many of the things that we need to improve are not in the Bill, but in the terms of reference, so it is important that we look at those.
There are three main changes that we should make to the Bill and that I hope will be accepted in Committee. First, we should remove the word “adverse” from clause 2(2), which says that the Animal Sentience Committee should have
“due regard to the ways in which the policy might have an adverse effect on the welfare of animals as sentient beings.”
As my Green colleague, Caroline Lucas, said, there really is no need to include the word “adverse”; if anything, it limits the legislation’s ambition and fails to deliver on the Government’s objectives. In the politics around animal welfare, it is quite a dated concept to use the word “adverse”, with its negative connotation in respect of animal welfare. It suggests that the job of animal welfare legislation is just to stop humans doing bad things to animals. It fails to consider the welfare agenda of the 21st century: what is a life well lived for an animal? How can we ensure not only that suffering is kept to a minimum but that animals enjoy a good quality of life? To delete “adverse” would not distract from the Government’s objectives in the Bill; indeed, it would arguably deliver a lot more on them. I hope that the Government will support an amendment to that end in Committee.
Secondly, on scope, I know that Ministers want the Bill to apply first to Government Departments—to the main Departments of State—but there is a strong case for Ministers to set out how they would accelerate its roll-out to apply it to non-departmental public bodies. For instance, I find it hard to justify the idea that the Bill will apply to the Department for Work and Pensions before it applies to Natural England and the Environment Agency. That does not make much sense, so I would be grateful if the Minister could set out the timetable for applying the Bill to every single non-departmental public body, and particularly to all the bodies in DEFRA-land, to ensure that they are within the scope of the Animal Sentience Committee. I would like this legislation and the committee to be in place by September this year; it is not unreasonable to argue that in September 2023, 12 months from that point, the legislation should apply to all non-departmental public bodies. I would be grateful if the Minister could set out whether that is the Government’s intention.
Thirdly, I am concerned about enforcement. I know that the Secretary of State will not like my saying this but, in my new-found freedom as a Back Bencher, let me be bold and speak frankly: DEFRA is a weak Department that does not really scare other Departments. The idea of DEFRA knocking on the door of, say, the Ministry of Defence to question its full implementation of animal sentience guidance is akin to a sardine taking on an Astute-class submarine: we are British and love the underdog, but it is not going to win. We need to be honest about that in relation to this legislation.
According to the guidance that accompanies the Bill, the Animal Sentience Committee will produce approximately six to eight reports a year. It seems to me that instead of allowing the delivery of written statements to the House of Commons three months after the Departments in question have made their initial reports, it makes much more sense for the Secretary of State to come to the House to make an oral statement, to enable parliamentarians to scrutinise the Animal Sentience Committee’s bulk report all in one go. I am concerned that the lack of such a parliamentary opportunity will limit the effectiveness of the legislation.
If the Secretary of State is keen to avoid the scrutiny opportunity of an annual moment, when he may also wish to set out the year-long cross-Government animal sentience strategy that is missing from the Bill, perhaps the Minister could set out the desired route by which parliamentarians will be able to question the effectiveness of the reports and whether they have led to any action or have simply been talking shops, designed to make Departments look but busy without delivering. Will we need to look to the good offices of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee to take time out of its busy schedule to analyse each report? Will we need a Backbench Business Committee slot to come free? Or will we need the Speaker to look favourably on a Member at DEFRA questions so that we can scrutinise any of the committee’s reports on the Floor of the House? I fear that without effective enforcement and proper parliamentary scrutiny, the Bill risks becoming a well-intentioned but meaningless piece of legislation.
It is important to look at the committee’s powers. The committee must have proper powers to investigate. Page 9 of the draft guidance the Government have released says that Departments will not have a legal duty to consult the committee. That is really important: Departments will not be required to co-operate with the Animal Sentience Committee. How can the committee improve accountability if Departments can simply decline to participate or to give information? The draft terms of reference suggest that if
“a Department fails to engage with the Committee or assist it with reasonable requests for information as it prepares a report, the Committee may record this non-cooperation in said report.”
That is a scary threat. How will Departments cope with the prospect of getting a black mark on their school report that will barely get any parliamentary scrutiny? What is missing here is a legal duty for Government Departments to co-operate and share information with the Animal Sentience Committee, to ensure that any concerns are properly followed up, otherwise the committee will not have the powers it needs.
I am interested in how DEFRA has come to the conclusion that there should not be a legal requirement to co-operate with the Animal Sentience Committee. Has there been an assessment of DEFRA’s own likelihood of co-operating with the committee? If so, will that assessment be published? Which Department is most likely not to co-operate with the Animal Sentience Committee? Is it the Ministry of Defence? Is it DEFRA? These are the questions to which we need an answer.
The Government admit in the draft terms of reference:
“The co-operation of UK Government Departments is necessary for the Committee to be able to work most effectively.”
But the Government are making that co-operation voluntary. It will be an option for any Secretary of State whose priority might not be animal sentience. Indeed, if they are being investigated, they probably will not have properly considered animal sentience in the development of policy. I suggest the Government take their own advice and make it a legal obligation for Departments to co-operate with the Animal Sentience Committee. That is another amendment that I hope will be moved in Committee. Perhaps the Environment Secretary will report annually on how many Departments are not co-operating with this new committee, as that would be very interesting for the House to know.
There are concerns about the independence of the Animal Sentience Committee and about who should be a member. In that respect, I share some of the concerns raised by the Countryside Alliance, which is not a likely bedfellow for me—the Countryside Alliance is generous and warm in how it describes me in these remarks. It is important that the membership of the committee is broad and has expertise, but it is also important that its members are clear and transparent about their involvement.
Annex A of the draft terms of reference sets out that the interests of members of the committee will be registered, and I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that, under paragraph (h) of annex A—on any organisations or work relevant to the committee—it will be very clear that all members of the committee, if they are part of a foxhunt, will need to declare it as an interest. I agree with the Countryside Alliance that it is important we have broad-based and transparent involvement. It is important that the interests of every member of the committee are transparently declared.
Finally, I want to address the inaccurate report that the Bill could, in any way, stop our fishers and farmers doing what they do best. We are in a strange period in which the UK does not have animal sentience legislation. We have not had it since we left the European Union because the Government chose not to copy it over, but we will have it again when this Bill passes, as it will.
The hysterical reports from the media and some lobbying groups suggesting that the Bill could affect fishing and farming are incorrect. Britain rightly demands high animal welfare standards for kept and wild animals, and we should be clear that that should continue with this Bill. The Secretary of State has my full support on that, but I echo my hon. Friend Jim McMahon and Deidre Brock in saying that we need high animal welfare standards in our trade deals, because it is not acceptable that the Australia trade deal undercuts our farmers by allowing food produced to lower animal welfare standards to be sold in the UK.
I echo a Labour colleague in saying that we need to tighten up the Hunting Act 2004 to stop foxhunting being a 21st-century practice. Trail hunting is an excuse for the live hunting of foxes and we need to close such loopholes. I am disappointed that this Bill does not provide the opportunity to do so.
Much of the Government’s animal welfare legislation has come from Labour’s animal welfare manifesto. There are many members of the 2019 intake in the Chamber, and I am sure they have read it thoroughly because, in many cases, they will have voted for many of the manifesto’s soundbites from the Government Benches, but it is not sufficient just to borrow the headlines from Labour’s animal welfare manifesto; the Government must borrow the detail, too. I encourage the Minister to look again at his well-thumbed copy to see what more he can borrow.
This is an okay Bill. It is half a pace forward, but it could be a full stride forward if we get the detail right. I hope that will happen in Committee.
This is a bad Bill, an unnecessary Bill and a Trojan horse for those who have no understanding of, and sadly in some cases despise, the countryside and all that goes on in it. Before I start, I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
We left the EU in order to pass our own laws, I hope guided by common sense and only where necessary, but this Bill is even more intrusive than the former legislation under EU law. It is a skeleton of a Bill, one that is not necessary and, indeed, it has the potential for great harm. I say “skeleton” because many aspects of the Bill are unclear. Who will be appointed to the committee? What skills will they have? How will it be resourced? Why is this a statutory committee when others are not? Why will it have the power to pass secondary legislation, and is this because the Bill itself has simply not been thought through and revision by whoever is in power will need to be accommodated? Why is the committee’s authority seemingly limitless, with its remit to cover all policy across all Departments, and what implications, which could be onerous, does that have for each Department?
As two of my colleagues have asked so far, what is sentience? It is simply not defined. To me, this will mean that the committee will examine the effect of Government policy on the welfare of animals as sentient beings. Sentience has long been recognised in Parliament. We have had animal welfare Bills since 1822. The most recent—it has already been mentioned—is the Animal Welfare Act 2006. They go far beyond the minimum standards set by the EU. Animal sentience is a fact, which is why welfare matters and why we have the highest standards. Then there is the question of the particular circumstances of the sentient animal. Animals kept by man are surely different from animals in the wild, even if both are sentient. To this end, I share the concerns of the noble Lord Etherton, who described this Bill as a magnet for judicial review.
I used the expression “Trojan horse” at the start, and what I mean is that I and many others fear that those with different agendas—often partisan and politically motivated—will hijack this committee and its role to attack activities such as shooting and fishing. I was interested to hear Luke Pollard mention fishing a moment ago, but he did not include shooting. The Countryside Alliance rightly believes that the Bill lacks the necessary details and safeguards to prevent the committee from extending its reach to rural activities, and in Labour and other hands that is exactly where this committee will head.
This Bill emanated from the Lords, where on Third Reading the noble Lord Herbert said that proposed amendments defining sentience, limiting the committee’s scope, ensuring scientific expertise, and balancing provision for religious, cultural and regional heritage were all refused by the Government as “not necessary”. This committee will be another bureaucracy whose tentacles will reach far and wide. A partisan committee will bring with it division and hostility where there need be none. Why on earth a Conservative Government are driving a coach and horses straight at our core supporters and many others is quite beyond me. I very much look forward to dramatic changes to this Bill before I would even begin to support it.
It feels rather odd to be rising after three Tory Back Benchers in a row—the only three Tory Back Benchers who have spoken in this debate—have all criticised a Government Bill, so I am here to lend my support to the Government, and I hope the Secretary of State is grateful for that.
By the time the Bill becomes law it will be more than six years since the UK voted to leave the European Union. It is now more than four years since Caroline Lucas moved an amendment to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which I seconded, calling on the Government to recognise animal sentience, as enshrined in article 13 of the Lisbon treaty, in UK law. It is four years since the Government promised to legislate, although that was only in a bid to stave off a Back-Bench rebellion after a big public campaign urged MPs to support the amendment. It has to be said that Tory Back Benchers back then seemed a lot more enthusiastic about supporting animal sentience—perhaps that is what comes of recent electoral changes.
It has been nearly three years since I introduced my own ten-minute rule Bill on animal sentience. That was after we took evidence at the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and the Minister kept saying, “We really want to bring measures forward, but we need the right legislative vehicle.” So I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill and said, “Here’s your legislative vehicle on a plate,” but the Government did not seem interested. It is also nearly two years since the Petitions Committee debate in Westminster Hall and well over a year since the end of the transition period, so we have been waiting a long time. Forgive me if I am a little cynical, but I am not entirely convinced that the Government really wanted this legislation at all, and I think that was borne out by the contributions from the three Conservative Back Benchers that we have heard from so far today.
I thank the campaigners and members of the public who have emailed MPs, signed petitions and kept pressing, because that is why the Government have finally produced this Bill. This pattern of promising action on animal welfare but taking forever to act is typical of this Government. We have seen it on ivory imports, trophy hunting, live exports and foie gras imports, as well as on refusing to crack down on the cruel and environmentally destructive practice of grouse shooting or to close the loopholes that have allowed fox hunting to continue. It is beyond me why an MP would stand here and say that we need to amend the Bill so that we have the right to be cruel to animals just because that has been traditional in this country. That is not exactly the definition of progress.
Nevertheless, despite my concerns about the Government’s credentials, I am glad the Bill has finally come before Parliament, and with a significant win for campaigners—the recognition of decapods and cephalopods as sentient beings. A couple of MPs have said that sentience is not defined. One reason the Government gave for the delay to this legislation was that they needed to carry out research. They got the London School of Economics to do research, and the LSE said:
“Sentience (from the Latin sentire, to feel) is the capacity to have feelings. Feelings may include, for example, feelings of pain, distress, anxiety, boredom, hunger, thirst, pleasure, warmth, joy, comfort, and excitement.”
There we go: that is the definition of sentience. I would have hoped that those MPs would look at the LSE definition.
The point I made in my remarks was that the terms of reference that accompany the Bill actually include a definition of sentience, and it is very similar to the one my hon. Friend has read out. Would it not be better if that definition was included in the Bill and not hidden in the terms of reference?
That might be a matter for the Bill Committee, so that we avoid some of the criticisms we have seen. I hope that the recognition of the sentience of decapods and cephalopods will mean an end to gross acts of cruelty, such as unstunned lobsters being boiled alive in the cooking process. When the Minister winds up, I hope she can confirm that that will indeed become illegal if the Bill passes, as the LSE recommended in its research.
We know that the octopus is an incredibly intelligent creature. I was shocked to read recently that the world’s first commercial octopus farm is set to be established in Spain. The farm will not be on UK soil, but the Government could ban imports and outlaw any such farms in UK waters, again as proposed in LSE research.
As has been mentioned, there are concerns about clause 2, which requires the proposed Animal Sentience Committee to consider only the adverse effects of policy decisions on animals, not the positive effects. I was not entirely convinced by the Minister’s very brief response to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion on that, and I hope the issue can be discussed in Committee.
I often say this in such debates, but I somewhat hate the self-congratulatory, complacent approach to animal welfare in this country. People are so very keen to boast of how good we are, but there are still many examples of where animals are abused and exploited. Industrially farmed animals can still face horrific, overcrowded and unsanitary conditions and be subject to abuse by those who purport to care for them. With live exports, we see animals suffering from thirst, overcrowding and overheating —again, in appalling conditions. The Environmental Audit Committee has just reported on poor water quality in UK rivers, and one of the key sources of water pollution was sewage run-off and agricultural slurry from intensive farming.
Undercover investigations from organisations such as Animal Equality and Viva! have exposed horrific conditions. Last year, it was revealed that cows were beaten with electric prods and sheep and pigs were slaughtered without adequate stunning at the G & GB Hewitt abattoir in Cheshire. We have seen reports of overcrowding, filthy conditions and even cannibalism among pigs on Hogwood Pig Farm. We have seen pigs being killed by having their heads slammed to the floor on Yattendon pig farm, chickens dying in heatwaves at Moy Park farm and chickens dying of thirst, suffering ammonia burns or resorting to cannibalism on multiple chicken farms that supply Tesco. All the farms I have mentioned were Red Tractor-approved, with supposedly higher animal welfare. We have a long way to go.
I echo what Deidre Brock said about the need to reduce dramatically the number of animal experiments, and the shadow Secretary of State’s concern about importing lower animal welfare standards into the country as a result of recent trade deals. All that leads me to a wider point about what we want our relationship with the animal kingdom to be. The reality is that biodiversity has plummeted by 60% since 1970, yet a staggering 60% of all mammals on this planet are now livestock, as industrial agriculture booms. Only 4% of mammals now are wild animals. That shows the impact that humans have had on the natural world: we have confined nature to farms and destroyed whatever is left outside them.
It is also estimated that since the dawn of human civilisation, 15% of fish biomass has been lost and 70% of global fish stocks are now either fully exploited or over-exploited. Renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle recently said that humans treat oceans like a “free grocery store”, and called on us to respect marine creatures in the same way we do elephants.
Recognition of the sentience of animals is the first step in a better relationship with them, so I welcome the Bill and urge colleagues to support it—but recognition is one thing, and respect is another. If we truly respect animals, we must do a lot more than just pay lip service to sentience: we must end the exploitation and abuse of animals on factory farms; stop treating animals as commodities; end the hunting and shooting of animals for sport; and halt and reverse the devastating damage that we have done to the natural world. I hope that all those issues can come out as a result of this Bill. It is just a starting point, but it is important to get the concept of animal sentience on the record, and I am happy to support it.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech in this important debate. It is a true privilege to stand among these green Benches as the Member of Parliament for Old Bexley and Sidcup, a place I have called home all my life. I thank colleagues for their warm reception today and for the party’s support throughout the by-election. Who would have thought that someone with the surname French would be so warmly welcomed by so many Brexiteers? If the Home Secretary could have forecast my voting against the Government in my first month, she might have deployed the Navy even earlier.
All jokes aside, I am more than happy to give my full support to the Government on the Bill and their wider efforts to improve animal welfare across the UK. As already outlined, the Bill builds on the Animal Welfare Act 2006 by recognising sentience in law and requires the Government to set up an Animal Sentience Committee to examine whether the welfare of animals as sentient beings has been given due regard in policy decisions.
The Bill has rightly received support from a range of animal welfare organisations and is welcomed by the majority of residents in Old Bexley and Sidcup, who, like me, are animal lovers. We recognise that animals feel joy and pain, and as such should be considered in future policy decisions, including the strengthening of sentencing for those who carry out the callous acts of cruelty and pet theft. Pet theft remains a real problem for families across Bexley and the country overall; I hope that the tougher sentences for such crimes will act as a deterrent to future offenders. On the subject of offenders, I confirm that I am not the lovechild of Norman Stanley Fletcher from “Porridge”, as has been speculated.
In representing the constituency of Old Bexley and Sidcup, I follow my good friend, the late James Brokenshire. I know hon. Members on both sides of the House mourn the loss of James, who was a friendly, thoughtful and well-liked gentleman. It is a great privilege to have Cathy in the Gallery today.
James was first elected to the House in 2005 as the MP for Hornchurch, and was elected in 2010 as the MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup. James was an outstanding constituency MP, who fought for the people of Old Bexley and Sidcup every day, never forgetting that it was them who placed him in this House. James was also a diligent and effective Minister, serving the country in some of the most sensitive and demanding positions under three successive Prime Ministers.
James was a true and loyal friend to me over many years, and I will always value the support he provided and the memories we shared, as I know many across this House do. Although I own significantly fewer ovens than he and Cathy, and I do not share his love for West Ham United, which largely reflected his Essex roots, I humbly recognise that he is a tough act to follow. I hope to be able to continue his legacy in some way.
Old Bexley and Sidcup is a fantastic seat to represent, and I am honoured to have been elected as the first home-grown MP to serve the communities across Old Bexley, Blackfen and Lamorbey, Blendon and Penhill, East Wickham, Longlands, North Cray, Sidcup, and Falconwood and Welling. The constituency is located in south-east London, but with its picturesque churches, charming pubs and beautiful green spaces, it is clear that Old Bexley and Sidcup is also firmly within Kent, with a strong sense of tradition and patriotism throughout the constituency.
Many hon. Friends visited my lovely home area during my election campaign, for which I am grateful. I would encourage all hon. Members to visit what I believe is the best constituency to represent, where they will find many fantastic businesses and some of the most scenic parks and open spaces, including Foots Cray meadows, with the five arches bridge over the River Cray.
Old Bexley and Sidcup also played an important role in the great war, through the pioneering work of Sir Harold Gillies at Queen Mary’s Hospital Sidcup, which opened in 1917. That was where almost every soldier who had suffered a facial injury was sent for ground-breaking facial reconstructive surgery, led by surgeon, Sir Harold, the man widely recognised as the father of modern plastic surgery. The medical staff at Queen Mary’s Hospital also went further, considering, perhaps for the first time, the long-term psychological effects on those disfigured by warfare, using methods of treatment and care that underpin the work undertaken by medical professionals in support of today’s armed forces.
The constituency also boasts two world-class drama schools, Rose Bruford College and Bird College, with notable alumni, including Gary Oldman, who most famously portrayed Winston Churchill in “The Darkest Hour”. Notable residents of Old Bexley and Sidcup are not limited to Rose Bruford alumni, and have included Roald Dahl, Quentin Blake, Roger Moore and Kate Bush, which highlights how culture and the arts lie at the heart of Old Bexley and Sidcup.
As a borough of aspiration, which is reflected in my own journey to this place, we are rightly proud of our fantastic local schools and colleges. Like many families in the constituency, my mother moved us to Bexley when I was born to benefit from the excellent local schools, in my case the old Westwood Infants and Juniors, now called Bishop Ridley Primary School; the old Westwood College, now called Harris Academy Falconwood; and not forgetting Blackfen Sixth Form, where I believe my hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis taught at one point. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] I apologise, Mr Speaker, on behalf of the constituency. [Laughter.]
I am determined to use my time in this place to do everything I can for our community, and ensure that it continues to be a great place to live. That includes campaigning to secure extra facilities at Queen Mary’s Hospital; increased availability of GP appointments and police on our streets; working to ensure our schools stay excellent; protecting our precious local green spaces; and ensuring Southeastern commuters finally see a much-needed improvement to our rail services.
I would like to finish by reciting James’s words in his maiden speech. He said that
“hope is one of the most valuable things that we can offer. In a small way, I will try to provide that sense of hope to my constituents, by standing up on the issues that matter to them, by listening to those who think that no one is prepared to be interested in their concerns, and by giving a voice in the House to those who have none.”—[Official Report,
James remained true to his word and I will continue this when serving my local area. In electing me as their Member of Parliament, the constituents of Old Bexley and Sidcup have given me the greatest honour of my life, and I pledge to serve them with the upmost integrity, dedication and care.
A fitting tribute from the new Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup. We all think of the former Member, who was a friend to us all.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr French. I was moved by his kind and thoughtful contribution on his predecessor, who was indeed well respected and admired by Members across the House. I think his constituency sounds beautiful. I liked the talk of the meadows and I had no idea Roald Dhal lived there. Perhaps I should pop down and visit. It is always good to welcome a fellow animal lover to the House of Commons, and I wish him all the best.
It is no exaggeration to say that I am contacted daily by constituents on one aspect or another of animal welfare. The recognition of animal sentience in law has been a consistent question since I became an MP in 2017. Many of us remember the famous amendment on animal sentience tabled during the constant Brexit debates. I certainly remember the flurry of emails, social media, tweets and messages on Facebook that followed, with numerous people telling me how important animal sentience was to them. It is, of course, entirely proper that the Government of the UK, famed as a nation of animal lovers, should act to remedy that issue. I am here to briefly, but carefully, represent the many voices of the people from Hull West and Hessle who contacted me on the issue.
No one who has looked after animals or spent time watching them in the wild can have any doubt that they are aware and can experience emotions. If you will forgive me for one moment, Madam Deputy Speaker, I do have to mention my two cats, Thomas and Serena, who have entirely different personalities. They are absolutely wonderful and dispel the idea that they cannot experience emotion when I can tell by looking at them exactly how they are feeling. One of the greatest inventions of the internet, of course, is #catsoftwitter, which I recommend to all Members. If they are having a bad news day, they should have a quick look at it and it will cheer them up.
It is worth reminding Members that we are animals, too. We are only different by degree, and more and more scientific research is showing us how slim that difference of degree is. Free or captive, wild or domesticated, our fellow animals should be treated with compassion and respect, and it is proper that the Bill recognises that by applying it to all. In fact, the continuing advances in our scientific understanding of animal sentience were what made the Government decide against including a definition of sentience in the Bill. I am pleased to hear that although a definition might not be in the Bill, it is in the terms of reference. That growing understanding has led to the inclusion of cephalopods and decapods, which include octopuses and lobsters, as sentient animals for the purposes of UK animal welfare law.
I want to mention the few small reservations I have. Although my remarks are in support of the Bill and those from Mr Djanogly were against, we share similar concerns about the composition of the committee. Who will sit on the committee? How will they be chosen? What powers will they have? How independent will they be of Government? My hon. Friend Luke Pollard made an incredibly useful contribution to the debate, because he detailed his concerns about the committee and the fact that it will have no power even to tell DEFRA how to conduct itself.
I quite agree with the hon. Lady. Why will she not then persuade those on her Front Bench to vote against this nonsense?
In general, we support the Bill. We hope that in Committee some of our reservations will be looked at and the Bill amended—[Interruption.] I see the Minister nodding at me from the Government Front Bench. So far, during the passage of the Bill, the Government seem to be willing to consider amending and improving it. I hope that that will continue.
The Bill does not propose a duty on Ministers to consider the welfare needs of animals when making policy. I think those points were very well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport. I draw attention to the remarks made by my hon. Friend Jim McMahon, who is not in his place. I hope the Government will look again at hunting with dogs and at animal standards abroad.
The points made about free trade deals are very concerning. I have had numerous emails from constituents on that point and they are very worried. Some of the flippant responses such as, “Well, they don’t have to buy that meat, then,” fail to recognise the fact that when price is taken into consideration many families might feel that they have no choice. We need to look at some of the animal standards we are importing.
I agree that we should have an annual oral statement, as a written statement produced for Parliament does not give the same chance for scrutiny. That is a weakness of the Bill that I hope the Minister will address.
I am grateful to Deidre Brock for raising a point about the use of primates in experiments by the Ministry of Defence, because I had no awareness of that whatsoever, so I am grateful that she has brought it to my attention. I hope the Minister can comment, because I find it hugely concerning.
Although I support the Bill, there are a few points that I hope the Government will take away and consider so that when it comes back for its final votes on Report it is much improved.
It is a pleasure to follow Emma Hardy.
It is a pleasure and privilege to speak in the debate on a very important Bill that Opposition Members will be pleased to hear this Member of Parliament strongly supports. I declare a strong professional interest as a veterinary surgeon; the Bill will be so important in recognising animal sentience in UK legislation.
In the current political climate I am loth to get into intricate debates about the difference between the words “implicit” and “explicit”, but, as the Secretary of State said, animal sentience has been implicit in UK law since the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act 1822, and it remains implicitly acknowledged in current animal welfare legislation, including the Animal Welfare Act 2006. I feel that this House and the Government missed a trick in 2017 by not transferring into UK legislation the part of article 13 of the Lisbon treaty that recognised that animals are sentient beings, because that would have been easy to do. That said, by not doing it, we now have an amazing opportunity to put animal sentience at the heart of UK legislation, and that is very important. I also welcome it as the Government’s fulfilling of a manifesto promise, which I strongly support.
I very much welcome the fact that cephalopod molluscs and decapod crustaceans are now included in the Bill. That sets a really good example. The Government have commissioned a piece of work from the London School of Economics and they have listened to it. I am very encouraged by that; I just wish they would do it a little more often.
Although I welcome the Bill, I very much recognise the contributions from Opposition Members who say that we need to be clearer on some of the details and specifics. I recognise that, by definition, this is a brief and general overarching Bill, which is probably quite sensible. That said, I would very much like it to define the term “sentience” in some way. In the 2017 Bill consultation, 79% of responses called for the inclusion of a definition in the Bill. A useful definition made by the Global Animal Law Project and endorsed by the British Veterinary Association states:
“Sentience shall be understood to mean the capacity to have feelings, including pain and pleasure, and implies a level of conscious awareness.”
The Minister said in the other place, and also before us in the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, that it might well be difficult to put the definition into primary legislation because the science is evolving and so potentially it could evolve. We could get round that by placing it in secondary legislation that would be easily updated, so I think that the Government can move forward on that.
I very much welcome the formation of the Animal Sentience Committee, but we need to be clear about its independence and to make sure that it has strong expertise and experience in animal welfare, animal health and veterinary matters. It needs to have some teeth and some power, including power to roam across Government. I am very glad that the committee will be based in DEFRA; although I want it to have a roaming feature, I am more comfortable with it being in the Department that is the custodian for animal health and welfare, which I think makes a lot of sense.
Given my hon. Friend’s expertise and professional experience, what examples does he have from his own life of such a committee being necessary? Why does he therefore want it based in DEFRA?
I will come on to some examples of why I think the committee will be important, and how the Government and the Secretary of State respond to it will be useful in formulating policy.
I am glad that the committee will be embedded in DEFRA, but I very much hope that it will be listened to. I draw a contrast with the Trade and Agriculture Commission, which I and many hon. Members on both sides of the House called for, as did the National Farmers Union. We were really pleased to have it scrutinising trade negotiations. It produced a report, but the Government were very slow in responding and were a little partial in their response. I very much hope that the response to the committee from DEFRA, a Department in which I have a lot of faith, will be unlike some of the responses from the Department for International Trade to the Trade and Agriculture Commission.
I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State will respond within three months. There has been a lot of fear that the Bill and the committee might be open to judicial review, but the fact that the Secretary of State needs to respond within three months may go some way towards mitigating that risk. I recognise that there have been concerns, however.
Does the hon. Member agree that a duty to create and maintain a cross-Whitehall animal sentience strategy would ensure strengthened ministerial responsibility, with greater oversight of the legislation’s impact and scientific opinions or advances?
It is very important for the committee to have a brief to look at policy across Departments. Yes, it is important that the Secretary of State responds, but it is equally important that if the committee needs information from other Departments, it should be made available. I thank the hon. Member for that intervention.
“all due regard to the ways in which the policy might have an adverse effect on the welfare of animals as sentient beings.”
I would like the Bill and the committee not only to include adverse effects, but to look at the positives—the ways in which the policy improves animal health and welfare. I firmly believe that we have the highest animal welfare and animal health standards in the world and that the UK can be a beacon to the rest of the world. If we put it in legislation that we will look at adverse effects on animals, we should also point out, shine a light on and show the rest of the world the positive effects on animal health and welfare. I look forward hopefully to some movement from the Government on that point.
Does my hon. Friend agree that when we left the European Union there was much scaremongering about animal welfare standards falling? Does he agree that the Government have demonstrated that those fears were absolutely unfounded, whether in their work on animal sentience or puppy smuggling or in their support for my Glue Traps (Offences) Bill, which goes into Committee tomorrow and will ban glue traps? Those are really important issues to my constituents.
Leaving the European Union certainly means that the UK can put legislation on the statute book to promote animal health and welfare. I would like the Government to go further, because there are things we can do to improve animal health and welfare now that we have left the European Union. The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, on which I sit, has produced a report, “Moving animals across borders”, that makes very strong recommendations about simple things that can be done.
I welcome the Bill, but I stress to the Government the need to please make animal welfare joined up across Government and across different policy areas. We need to act now to do that. The evidence is there in many of these different areas. Oftentimes, we do not need to consult and put it in the long grass; we can do the things that need to be done now.
With your indulgence, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will list some things that we could do that the Bill will help us to do. I strongly welcome the pet theft legislation. I have been campaigning for it, and I am pleased that it has come in to the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill. That legislation is very much focused on the high-profile species—the dog—that has sadly been stolen in increasing numbers during the pandemic, and that is getting worse, but it is not just dogs that are being stolen; cats are being stolen every day and as we speak.
I strongly urge the Government to expand the legislation. I know there is a clause to say, “This can be done in the future. We will take evidence”, but cats, horses, ponies, farm animals and livestock are being stolen now. I represent a rural part of the world with a big farming footprint, and farm animal and livestock theft is a big issue for us. If we are now putting on the statute book that animals are fully sentient beings, and we are taking that into consideration in legislation, I strongly urge the Government that we need to create a huge deterrent to people who commit this abhorrent crime of animal theft.
On domestic public sector food procurement, I urge the Government to close the loophole in the Government buying standards that allows public bodies to buy food products at lower standards on the grounds of cost, if it is cheaper. We need to close that loophole. When I have raised this with Government, they have been very encouraging, saying, “Yes, we will be looking at that.” Certainly our Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee looked at that closely. If we are trying to be a beacon to the rest of the world, we must get our own house in order. I urge the Government quickly to close that Government buying standards loophole.
Opposition Members have talked about international trade. My views on international trade are on the public record. As an outward-looking nation, it is important that we strike trade deals with the rest of the world, but they have to be fair to both partners. Within that, the Trade and Agriculture Commission made a lot of clear recommendations on core standards and the animal welfare side of things, which we need to respect in those trade deals. Sadly, I feel that the Government and the Department for International Trade are being very slow in responding to that.
We need to have core standards in trade deals. We need to put out the message to the rest of the world that if they want to trade with us, they need to bring their standards up to those we find acceptable in this country. We are a beacon. We have high animal health and welfare and we can drive up standards around the world. There must be red-line products that we do not allow in.
I draw a difference with Opposition Members when it comes to hormone-treated beef and chlorine-washed chicken, which the Opposition spokesperson, Jim McMahon, talked about. To a degree, that is not going to happen. The Government have been very clear that that is illegal in this country, and it will remain illegal. It is other products that we need to be thinking about in terms of substandard animal husbandry techniques.
I do not want these trade deals to undermine our fantastic British farmers. This is about not protectionism but standing up for our values. What do we believe in? This Bill shows that we firmly believe that animals are sentient beings and that we have a high regard for animal health and welfare. We need to be doing that with our domestic policy, but we also need to be doing it in our international trade deals, when we strike them.
The trade deal with Australia can be a positive thing, but we must make it work and it must be fair to both partners. As it stands, it is not fair to the United Kingdom. I urge the Government to look at the safeguards they have said they have put in place and to ensure that those safeguards have some teeth. We need the tariff rate quota mechanism that I have been calling for, but we also need an assurance that if the amount of beef—it is largely beef, but it could be lamb—coming into this country is too high, that mechanism can be used to turn down that supply. That is not protectionism; that is standing up for our farmers and our values. I also welcome the Government’s having moved, under pressure, to put animal welfare chapters into these trade deals, but I firmly believe they are not strong enough. They need to be strengthened.
There is a non-regression clause in the Australian trade deal, but it is not good enough to say, “Well, our standards will not get any worse.” We need to make sure that the standards come up to the standards that we believe are right in the United Kingdom. We are a beacon on this, and we can drive up animal health and welfare standards around the world.
The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee made a series of pragmatic and sensible recommendations on animal health and welfare in our report “Moving animals across borders”. Unfortunately, the Government have been a little slow and—to give a cricketing analogy—a bit straight bat on it. Our recommendations included raising the minimum age of dogs that come into the country to six months, to stamp out the abhorrent crime of puppy smuggling, and banning the import of dogs that have been mutilated by ear cropping and cats that have been declawed. We need to stop that. We need to ban the movement of heavily pregnant dogs, because that fuels the puppy smuggling trade.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech, which supports the argument that clause 2 ought to include positive measures. Would it not be great if we introduced legislation that addressed issues such as cropping dogs’ ears or declawing cats, which would show the world that, through this Bill, we are making progress on such issues?
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I agree with her. Pointing out where things are having an adverse effect is important, but so is pointing out positive measures. We need to put out the message about where we think things can improve.
I would also like to see—I have pushed this hard in the Chamber and would do so in the Bill Committee—improvements in the health checks on animals coming into this country, including pre-import tests for diseases such as canine brucellosis, babesiosis and leishmaniasis, and the reinstatement of mandatory tick treatment. My hon. Friend Jane Stevenson talked about some of these things. Now that we have left the European Union, we can reintroduce the mandatory tick treatment for small animals that the Europeans stopped us doing. That might seem a semantic, purely veterinary point, but if we protect animals coming in, they are less likely to bring in diseases that are dangerous to our dog population, some of which have zoonotic potential and could affect people. I would also like to see reinstatement of the rabies titre checks for animals and an increase in the wait time to 12 weeks post rabies vaccination. That would indirectly stop the puppy smuggling trade because it would make it less likely that a fluffy little puppy would be coming through to fuel that market.
I declare an interest again as a veterinary surgeon with an equine background. We need to sort out the equine identification system as well. Hundreds, if not thousands, of horses are illegally exported to the continent of Europe for slaughter, and if we improved the identification of those animals, we could stamp out that abhorrent practice. The EFRA Committee has made recommendations to Government, and I urge them to respond. Unfortunately some of the responses seem to be a bit “Little Britain”— “Computer says no.” To quote a famous sports brand, I say to the Government, “Just do it.”
Finally, I want to raise again the crisis that is facing the pig sector in this country. If we are talking about animal sentience and valuing high animal health and welfare, we need to highlight that crisis. As the EFRA Committee has said, it is an animal and human welfare crisis. I say that as a vet who spent time in the field during foot and mouth supervising the cull of farm animals on farm. Those animals did not end up in the food chain; they were disposed of. I can tell the House how upsetting that is for farmers, vets, slaughter workers and all concerned. We need to mitigate and avert that. More than 30,000 pigs have been culled on farm, and I know that the Secretary of State and DEFRA have been moving on this, putting pressure on different Departments, for example to increase cold storage. We had the Minister for Safe and Legal Migration before us and we were, frankly, pretty dissatisfied with the responses. We need some joined-up thinking across Government to improve the visa situation so that people can come here to help solve this crisis. I say to Ministers, “Please act now to avert this catastrophe.”
The Bill needs some additions, but the Government have initiated much that is to be welcomed, and it important that that will be on the statute book. The Government have talked the talk, and I urge them to walk the walk. We have a duty of care for these sentient beings; let us put that into practice, and let us do it now.
It is an honour to follow my constituency neighbour, Dr Hudson. He made a comprehensive speech, and, not for the first time, I agreed with the colossal majority of what he said. It is also a huge honour to follow Mr French, who spoke earlier. I congratulate him on an excellent maiden speech—I know it is customary for us to say that, but it genuinely was an excellent maiden speech. He represents a beautiful part of the country, which he described very well. I had no idea that Kate Bush owed something to his constituency, but that is massively in its favour from my perspective.
The hon. Gentleman also spoke fondly about his predecessor, the late James Brokenshire, who entered the House on the same day as me, and of whom I was always fond. People speak fondly of James because of the way he conducted himself. It is sometimes very easy to say, “I like X”—a member of another party—“because we agree on certain issues”, but it was not that I considered James to be a particularly liberal Tory, although he may have been. That was not the point; it was how he conducted himself in this place, in meetings, and in all that he did. He showed grace and decency, he treated people as he found them, he was utterly honourable and trustworthy, and he was a very competent Minister. We miss him hugely.
We also welcome the hon. Gentleman massively, and I look forward to hearing many more speeches from him. He spoke today with great knowledge of the subject of the debate and with great insight, and, for what it is worth, I agreed with what he said. I think we may have reached a stage at which the number of Conservative Members who have spoken in favour of the Bill matches the number who have spoken against it, which is good to know .
I am broadly in favour of the Bill, because I think that how we treat animals is a moral indicator of how we are as a culture and as a society. It is a measure of our own humanity, so it is right that we as a country are proud of being a nation of animal lovers. Often the way to get any group of people to behave well is to remind them of how good they are, so it is important that we cling to this self-definition; but it is also important that our legislation follows that, so we will of course support the Bill’s Second Reading.
As a member of the European Union, this country, through article 13 of the Lisbon treaty, enshrined the acknowledgement of animal sentience in legislation. I welcome the fact that—following an unnecessary delay that has been mentioned by a number of Members on both sides of the House—we are now closing that gap. However, I think that the Bill represents a missed opportunity. Members do not need me to remind them of my views on whether it was wise to leave the European Union, but in the case of a number of aspects of our departure, we have opportunities to go one better than how the EU left us. In respect of the legislation at least, we have ensured that in theory we will now be no worse than we were in the EU. In practice, though, as several Members on both sides of the House have pointed out, if we sign trade deals with countries whose animal welfare standards are poorer than ours, we will put ourselves into a position where we are worse than we were before.
The most recent example is our trade deal with Australia. It is important to recognise that the Animal Sentience Committee will have no powers, as far as we can tell, to ensure that those deals—and further deals in the future—do not undermine animal welfare. It is not just a question of the treatment of animals and recognition of their sentience within the borders of this country; it is also a question of how countries that we deal with, in our name, treat those animals. If sovereignty means anything, it means our ability to affect other countries in so far as they relate to us; in the trade deal with Australia, we have failed to do that. This is true on three counts. When it comes to husbandry, I do not need to explain much about how the geography and the nature of farming in Australia differ from ours in the United Kingdom. The vast plains and the ranch-style farming in Australia mean that, to a large degree, there is no husbandry there.
I gently disagree with the hon. Member. Although he and I agree on many aspects of what we are discussing, as a vet who has worked on farms in Australia, I think he is making a very sweeping statement about the calibre and nature of farmers across Australia. He is correct that the geography and environment there is very different, but I can tell him from personal experience that many, many farmers out there farm to the highest standards, including when it comes to animal husbandry. To say that Australia has no animal husbandry is, frankly, incorrect.
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. He will recognise, particularly having been in Australia, the nature of that husbandry. In Cumbria, the welfare of livestock is tended to week in, week out. As many of my constituents who have farmed in Australia have informed me directly, the first time that someone in Australia knows that one of their animals might be ill is when they find its sun-bleached bones on the plains the following season. That is a different form of farming. Australians are not instinctively cruel people; that is not the point I am making—[Interruption.] I am sure that Members on both sides of the House understand that. I am saying, however, that lower standards are cheaper, including standards that do not require mandatory closed circuit television coverage in abattoirs, which we have here, or the restrictions that we have here on the transportation of live animals.
Given that we know that poorer welfare standards are cheaper, these trade deals—particularly the one with Australia—offer a financial and economic market advantage to countries with poorer standards than ours that export to us. That not only undermines the morality of the UK’s commitment to high animal welfare, but massively undermines our farmers. Every farmer in Cumbria and the rest of the United Kingdom suffers because the UK Government have chosen to do a deal with a country that we have much in common with, but that does not acknowledge the animal welfare issues there. That is why the Animal Sentience Committee and the recognition of sentience in the Bill, which I support, will not have an effect on all the animals affected by decisions taken in this place. This is an abuse of an opportunity—a missed opportunity—and a waste of our sovereignty, but the Bill is good in so far as it goes, so I welcome it and will vote for it.
I do criticise those Members—not my neighbour, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border, but some of his colleagues—who have been critical of the Bill not because it does not go far enough, but because it goes as far as it does. They are wrong in that. People have said that the Bill is a threat to farming, but it is no such thing. I speak to farmers throughout my communities and further afield, and they welcome the Bill. They are committed to animal welfare—it is in their DNA.
We should recognise, however, the threat to farmers from trade deals, and from the Government’s dogged insistence on phasing out the basic payment scheme before the arrival of the new environmental land management scheme. Just last month, farmers lost between 5% and 25% of their basic payment, and there is no sign, even slightly over the horizon, of anything to replace it. That will put small British family farms out of business, and there will be a knock-on effect on animal welfare, because part of the reason for our animal welfare culture and why our standards are as high as they are in this country is that they are based on the model and example of the British family farm.
Although I welcome and will support the Bill, and think that there is much to be said for it, I want to rush through some areas where things need to be improved. First, I hope that the fact that the duty to enforce recognition of animal sentience falls on the committee and not primarily the Secretary of State will be changed during the passage of the Bill. That is not right; it gives less responsibility and power to the Secretary of State.
I am also very concerned that clause 3 requires the Secretary of State only to lodge before Parliament a response to reports from the Animal Sentience Committee. That could be a two-line dismissal, and then what would we do? I guess the Opposition could call an Opposition day debate, and we could ask questions at Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions, but as Luke Pollard said, the opportunities for scrutiny are minimised. The task of initiating these things is all put on Opposition Members or Government Back Benchers. Set pieces will not be a part of the process, and it would be entirely possible for the Secretary of State effectively to dismiss any report pretty perfunctorily.
As has been said by a number of colleagues from across the House, we should not treat this matter purely in the negative, although unfortunately at the moment the Bill does that. If we are so proud of our heritage and our high animal welfare standards, why is the committee and its work not about promoting good practice around the country, and in every aspect of our life in so far as it impacts animals, as well as about trying to stamp out bad practice? Again, that feels like a missed opportunity to have gone further and done better. As I have strongly implied, the Animal Sentience Committee should have the power to comment on trade deals. My fear is that, on those matters, it could end up—a bit like the Trade and Agriculture Commission—being a watchdog that may bark occasionally but does not have very much bite. The Government are certainly under no compulsion or obligation to take any notice of it whatsoever.
Many animal welfare charities have expressed concerns to me about the lack of resource for the Animal Sentience Committee. I acknowledge that point, as it goes with our concern about the absence of parliamentary scrutiny and the relegation of these serious issues to a body that is one place removed from this place. The committee chair will be “hired”, for want of a better word, for 20 days a year, and members of the committee for 15. There is no dedicated secretariat—I understand that will be provided by DEFRA staff—and no obvious independent budget. All that adds up to just about ticking the box, and just about copying what the EU did, but without anybody watching over our shoulder. Meanwhile, we are not doing anything. We are meant to be a global trading nation whose footprint and impact is felt around the world. What a missed opportunity to make that impact and do something good when it comes to animal welfare. So this is not three cheers; it is perhaps two, or more likely one, but it is better than nothing, and I will vote for the Bill.
I am grateful for the opportunity to make a short contribution to this important debate. The Secretary of State’s speech was reasonable, moderate and balanced, and I congratulate him on bringing forward the Bill. I appreciate the strong views highlighted by my hon. Friend Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, and I hope he will get the clarity he requires as the Bill proceeds through the House.
We have had a good debate covering wide aspects of the Bill, but I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour Mr French. He made an excellent maiden speech, and we look forward to more of his speeches in the coming weeks and months. Personally, I look forward to working closely with him in Bexley on behalf of all residents of the borough, and to continuing the work that James, Abena Oppong-Asare and I have done to promote our borough as one of the best in the country. I wish my hon. Friend well in his parliamentary career, and congratulate him on being elected to represent Old Bexley and Sidcup.
Britain is, of course, a nation of animal lovers, whether those animals be pets or wild. I have had a number of pets over the years. I got interested in animal welfare because I had a beagle called Skipper, and they were doing tests on beagles to do with smoking—a dreadful situation—in appalling laboratories. Now we do not have that, but there are still areas of animal welfare in which we need to do more. It is therefore good that we have such a Bill and are able to put forward our views.
Many of my constituents across Bexleyheath and Crayford are pet owners and are passionate about animals and animal welfare. Pressure from public opinion has resulted in this measure coming forward and being in the 2019 Conservative party manifesto, and I welcome those things. Britain has a proud history of animal welfare, and has always been a global leader, and I very much hope that, being outside the EU, we can go much, much further. We heard from my hon. Friend Dr Hudson about his expertise as a vet, and I learned a lot listening to his excellent speech. I am sure the Government will continue to improve the lives and welfare of animals. They launched the action plan for animal welfare to ensure that we go further, and I welcome that passionately.
I have read the enlightening debates on the Bill in the other place. I have great interest in the Bill’s many issues, and very much hope to participate further in Committee and as the Bill makes its passage through the House.
The Bill will formally recognise animals as sentient beings—a scientific fact—in domestic law. I welcome the Government’s ongoing commitment to ensuring that we have some of the strongest protections in the world for pets, livestock and wild animals. Following excellent research from the London School of Economics and Political Science—the university that I attended—the Government rightly extended the scope of the Bill so that it recognises that decapods and cephalopods can feel pain. They are therefore covered by this vital legislation.
The scientific community is always conducting research to improve our knowledge and understanding of animal sentience, so the Bill allows the Secretary of State to extend protections to any invertebrate species in the future, should it become apparent that they are sentient beings. That, again, is sensible. The debate has shown the House, and even those who have considerable concerns about aspects of the Bill, at their best; we can go forward, talk about the issues, and advance the interest of animals.
The sentience committee was mentioned. Its members will be appointed by the Secretary of State, and I am sure that it will be made up of experts in the animal field. The committee will not be allowed to change legislation; it will be required to report on whether central Government policy decisions have considered the effect on animal welfare. The findings will, quite rightly, be made public, for transparency. The committee will not result in legislation through the back door, as recommendations will be only advisory. However, Ministers will be required to update Parliament on the committee’s recommendations and the Government’s response. We will therefore have opportunities to raise and debate issues as the Department and Secretary of State give responses. It is important that we continue to monitor animal welfare issues closely, so I welcome what the Government are doing.
We always like our pets, but we also like to go into the countryside and see a wide variety of animals; it is part of the country scene. Although I am an urban man, having grown up in suburbia and representing a suburban seat, I none the less appreciate the importance of animals for all manner of reasons, and from all manner of experiences in life. Many people are keen on their pets, and never more so than during the covid-19 pandemic, when people were often on their own and relied on their pets for company, love and affection, and to sustain their mental health.
Animals are important across the whole field—that is why the Bill is so important. I strongly recognise how passionate the Ministers are about this subject, as well as those who represent rural constituencies. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend Sir Bill Wiggin is making sedentary comments, as usual. I support the Bill, and congratulate the Government on bringing it forward and implementing a manifesto commitment.
First, let me draw the House’s attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, because I farm. What a delight it was to listen to such a full tribute to my friend James Brokenshire. He was a lovely man and a good friend, and we miss him very much. He has a worthy successor in my hon. Friend Mr French. What large shoes he has to fill. I am sure that he will do his very best.
Concern for animal welfare is, as everyone has said, something on which we pride ourselves in this country, and on which we already lead globally. The sentience of animals has long been recognised in this country, as is evidenced by the animal welfare legislation passed by Parliaments over the last 200 years. My great-great-grandfather was the MP for somewhere in Birmingham—I think it was Yardley. I asked the Library to look up any speeches he made in 1885, and all it could find was a speech on rabbits and hares. Here I am, 137 years later, still on animal welfare. Nothing has changed because we care about sentience in animals. That is not going to make the Bill necessary. The Bill is completely unnecessary.
Every Member who has spoken in the debate has listed things that they think are more important than the Bill when it comes to animal welfare. They are right. There are so many things on which we could do a better job. Parliamentary time is not an endless opportunity. This is the place for Governments to bring in changes and improvements to the lives we and our constituents lead. We are elected for fixed periods of time, so every day is precious, and every opportunity to improve, simplify or even tweak our legislation is both a privilege and an obligation. That is why unnecessary tokenism and gestures, although they might feel nice, are a missed opportunity. The Bill is one of the best examples of that—glittering with good intentions, just like the road to hell, but absolutely and completely unnecessary.
First, the Bill creates an open goal for prevention. If someone wants to prevent a planning application, they can refer it to a quango and get a three-month report. There are questions about the proposed committee that will be formed to determine whether the sentience of animals has been considered by Government policy. What happened to the bonfire of quangos? DEFRA has already created a quango in the Environment Act 2021, and now it thinks we need another one. It is not so much a bonfire of quangos as a breeding ground for quangos. While most life forms fall under the scope of the Bill, the taxpayer, that most undervalued of vertebrates, would appear not to do so.
Parliament has always proceeded on the basis that animals are sentient, and has legislated for animal welfare as a result. The definition, or lack thereof, in the Bill is somewhat irrelevant. What animals are considered to be sentient can be changed to suit. All this will do is prevent things. Want to plant more trees, build more houses, improve infrastructure or open a new power station? None of that will be straightforward, just in case we might hurt the feelings of a mouse or a cuttlefish in the process. [Interruption.] Yes, cuttlefish are cephalopods.
The Bill directly contradicts our pledge to level up this nation. My constituency has a moratorium on house building because of phosphate pollution in the River Wye. House building is proven to contribute only a tiny fraction of that pollution, but house builders and aspiring homeowners are being punished. The Bill will be terrible news for those people, as undoubtedly, in the wildest, most natural and beautiful of constituencies, some lovely creature will be discovered in situ. Its sentience will now need to be considered and more unelected bodies will have the power to subvert the building of those much-needed homes. What is conservative about that?
The core aspect of the Bill is to embed consideration of animal welfare into the policy decision-making process, as if we could not manage that by ourselves. That consideration will be made by the Animal Sentience Committee, an opaque body. To the naive, that will appear a noble stance for the Government to take. However, there are serious misgivings about what the committee will set out to achieve. The role of the committee is apparently to scrutinise not the substance of the policy decisions, but the process by which the decisions were reached and whether all due regard has been paid to animal welfare. However, the draft terms of reference suggest that the committee could have a role in scrutinising policies. That would be at odds with the very legislation bringing it into existence.
My question to the Minister, therefore, is who the membership of the committee will report to. Will it be at arm’s length? Most importantly, what safeguards will be in place to ensure that the committee will not act as a vessel by which farming, wildlife management and the rural economy are attacked? If anyone has any doubts that that might happen, they should listen to the contributions of Opposition Members. The way in which the Bill has been greeted should fire off the alarm bells in everybody’s minds. Greater detail is needed on what this committee is truly being set up for and what its aims are. We already have thousands of quangos in this country, and if we are not careful we will descend into the quagmire of anti-democratic legislation.
This is a crucial time for agriculture and rural life in the UK. As we leave the common agricultural policy and move to the environmental land management scheme, many farmers will be concerned about what the future holds. The Conservative party is a party of the farmer, for the farmer, so let us ensure that future animal policy recognises the calibre of our farmers, their land management practices and the deep care they have for their animals. They have not asked for this Bill, and they do not need it. This Bill is a waste of time and utterly unnecessary—
The hon. Gentleman outlines what he thinks are threats to farmers, but I do not agree that the Bill is a threat to British farmers. However, he alluded to the transition from basic payments to ELMS being a threat, and in that case I think he is right. Would he recommend that the Secretary of State pegs basic payments at their current level and keeps them there until ELMS is available for every farmer?
It is difficult for me to answer that, because I am a member of the ELMS pilot scheme, so I am deeply involved in the formation of ELMS. What I would say is that public money for public goods is the right way forward, with carbon captured in the soil and a corresponding payment made to farmers so that we can balance up the subsidy deficit that British farmers will face compared with their European competitors. At the end of the day I do not believe in subsidy for anything other than agriculture, and we subsidise only in order that our goods are competitive globally—if do not pay our farmers enough, our produce will not compete internationally and our farmers will be at a huge disadvantage.
My hon. Friend alluded to the fact that the committee’s work will be retrospective. Any citizen could suggest to the committee that the Government should change policy in a certain area. The committee would then look into that and make a recommendation to the Minister. That is a real gift to lobbying groups to achieve what they want, and the Government would be under difficulty to withhold it.
As always, my hon. Friend is absolutely right.
The real shame about this legislation is that here we are at Second Reading and every single colleague on both sides of the House has thought of better things for the Government to deal with, whether it is ELMS, as suggested by Tim Farron, or any of the other suggestions I have heard from Opposition Members. This Bill is a waste of time; it is utterly unnecessary and therefore wrong. We should not pass Bills that state the obvious and that are hostages to fortune, we should not create more quangos, we should not vote for unnecessary legislation —and we certainly should not vote for this Bill.
Fear not, Secretary of State and Minister—the voice of the modern Conservative is bringing up the rear of the debate. May I start by paying tribute to the newest member of the bunny-hugging wing of the Conservative party, my hon. Friend Mr French, and congratulate him on using the debate to make his maiden speech? Many of our constituents care passionately about animal welfare issues, and my hon. Friend has done an amazing job in representing them today.
As a long-time advocate on animal welfare issues, and in the past sometimes a lone voice on issues such as the badger cull, I have found it encouraging to see more Members joining the Government side of the House speaking out about the wellbeing of animals. I think that that has been helped by the fact that, over the last 10 years, Conservative-led Governments, and particularly this Secretary of State, have delivered enormous progress on these matters. We now have tougher sentences for animal cruelty offences, the world’s strongest ivory trade ban, bans on commercial third-party sales of puppies and kittens and on the use of wild animals in circuses, and much more.
At present, we also have two key pieces of legislation progressing through Parliament—the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill, which we are debating today, and the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill. Both will make good on various manifesto commitments and help to improve the lives of millions of animals. However, it would be remiss of me not to take this opportunity to press for the immediate introduction of new legislation to ban the import of horrific hunting trophies—I do not think that is more important than this debate, but I do think it is equally important.
For this debate, I read through House of Lords Hansard, and I am enormously proud of Lords Benyon and Goldsmith, previously of this parish, who were often comrades on similar matters in previous Parliaments. They have done a phenomenal job in introducing this legislation and amending it where needed.
One such amendment related to decapod crustaceans and cephalopods. I warmly welcome the inclusion of those species within the scope of the Bill and pay tribute to the numerous charities and campaigners, such as Crustacean Compassion, who worked so hard to have this included in the Bill. I am pleased that the Government listened; I thank the Secretary of State and Ministers, who took notice of what was said and acted on the overwhelming scientific evidence proving that those species can feel pain. The UK will join just a handful of countries in the world, including Australia and Switzerland, in recognising decapod crustaceans as sentient beings and will introduce steps to further improve their welfare, such as pre-slaughter stunning and a ban on ice storage while alive.
Contrary to some on the Government side of the House, I welcome the establishment of an Animal Sentience Committee and am encouraged that it will work to consider the ways in which policy across Government can have an impact on animal welfare. I hope Government Departments will work effectively with the committee, including those responsible for policy areas less obviously associated with animals and animal welfare. I also welcome the terms of reference and the fact that the committee may consider how Ministers have had a positive effect on animals as sentient beings in the policy- making process.
However, I fear the ASC may lack the operational freedom to look at different areas of policy that could be improved further; as it stands, the central focus on adverse effects suggests a minimal effort at reducing potential harms to animals. I would welcome reassurance that the committee will be able to suggest positive and proactive steps to improve animal wellbeing, as advocated by the British Veterinary Association. A dedicated budget and the inclusion of appropriate veterinary and animal welfare expertise would remove the burden on civil servants, ensure that Ministers were provided with independent, scientifically backed recommendations and help to ensure that the UK remains at the forefront of best practice in animal welfare legislation.
While I welcome the fact that it will continue to be up to Ministers to assess how certain legislation may impact animal welfare and to weigh up the costs and benefits in relation to other important considerations such as social, environmental and economic matters, I do not believe it is unreasonable that the committee be able to consider other ways in which Ministers can improve regulation further. We have previously expressed a desire for the UK to go further than any other country on animal welfare legislation, improving on article 13 of the Lisbon treaty, which still allows for cultural activities that cause unimaginable animal suffering. I hope we do not lose sight of that commitment.
There is much more to be done, ranging from reviewing the use of snares and glue traps—my hon. Friend Jane Stevenson has a ten-minute rule Bill on that going into Committee tomorrow—to looking again at scents in trail hunting, considering the welfare of hens, protecting seals from intentional disturbance and coming good on ending the badger cull. There is more that we can do, but I welcome the Bill we are discussing today.
Finally, I repeat my thanks to Ministers and officials in DEFRA who have worked on this important Bill, which ensures that there is no loss of legal protections for animals following our departure from the European Union. I look forward to supporting this Bill wholeheartedly and following the rest of its progress through Parliament.
This is an important Bill, and I thank all hon. Members who have spoken in this Second Reading debate. There have been some thoughtful and engaging contributions—some very interesting ones—and I think we saw a House willing to work together to deliver a Bill that is fit for purpose.
It was fascinating to hear from the Government’s Back Benchers, in particular from the hon. Members for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) and for North Herefordshire (Sir Bill Wiggin), and I look forward to some great debates with them on the Bill Committee. It is a shame we are not dividing today, because I am sure we would have had some rebels voting with us this evening.
I particularly want to thank my hon. Friend Luke Pollard for his specific and forensic action on the wording and for his helpful comments throughout the speech he made. I also thank my hon. Friend Kerry McCarthy for her action to provide legislation for the Government in the past, and particularly for her amendment to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill in 2017.
I of course welcome Mr French to his place, and I thank him for his maiden speech. As one by-election winner to another who has succeeded after the sad passing of their predecessor, I understand the difficulty he has felt, but I pay tribute to him for his moving and thoughtful speech today. I welcome him to this place, and I look forward to working with him in the future.
I thank my hon. Friend Emma Hardy. I share her love of cats, and I will now be seeking out the site she mentioned on Twitter. More seriously, her wish to see the Bill strengthened and improved as it progresses is very welcome. Obviously, the expertise as a vet of Dr Hudson is very welcome, especially on this Bill, and I welcome the input from Sir David Evennett and Tracey Crouch.
As the House heard from the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend Jim McMahon—my new boss, whom I welcome to the shadow DEFRA team—the Opposition welcome this Bill, but, as ever, we want it to go further, be stronger and do more. Labour is the party of animal welfare, and a special mention again goes to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport for all his work on these issues when he was in the shadow Cabinet. From bringing forward the landmark Hunting Act 2004 to protecting the treatment of domestic animals under the Animal Welfare Act, Labour has always placed the welfare of animals high on the policy agenda.
There is growing consensus among scientists and policy makers that animals are sentient beings capable of feeling emotions and experiencing pain. A UK parliamentary petition run by the Better Deal for Animals campaign calling for an animal sentience law recently received over 100,000 signatures, and it was debated in this place on
Colleagues who thought that unravelling our membership of the European Union would be sorted by putting a border down the Irish sea will be surprised that we are here because of our decision to leave the European Union. Our departure means that this country no longer has legislation that recognises animals as sentient beings. That is why the Opposition welcome the Bill and the opportunity to strengthen our country’s approach to animal welfare that it provides.
“The formal legal recognition of animal sentience sends a clear message that we are committed as a country to protecting the welfare of animals, but for this to be meaningful, any commitment on paper must be followed up in practice.”—[Official Report, House of Lords,
The noble Baroness is correct, as ever, and that is exactly where we will pick up. Colleagues in the other place have continued to raise concerns about the current state and reach of this Bill. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Jo Churchill, whom I welcome to her first Bill in her new position, needs to be very clear about who will sit on the Animal Sentience Committee, how it will be funded, what engagement there will be with the devolved Administrations and how we can be sure that Ministers abide by the reports that come from this independent committee. The Secretary of State said in his opening remarks that there will be “expertise and experience” on this committee. Can she outline exactly how this will be brought together?
We have the chance to make this Bill fit for purpose now and our responsibilities as Members of this House require us to do the best by our constituents, but we also have a responsibility to our natural world, our wildlife and animals. To honour that responsibility, we must be ever vigilant. That is why this Bill is so important: it provides us with another opportunity to look at our approach to animal welfare and what we can do to keep our animals safe.
That is also why we must take this Bill seriously, and we must work together to strengthen it and show that, on some key issues, this House can unite and deliver real change. When this Bill moves to Committee, as it will do when it passes Second Reading today, I hope to work constructively with the Minister, the hon. Members for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) and for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) and others to deliver a Bill that is really fit for purpose.
A number of colleagues have touched on the views of some of the important stakeholders out there in the real world, and I want to do so, too. First, I want to thank all those campaigners and organisations that have been in touch and provided such helpful briefings. The Better Deal for Animals coalition has expressed its support for the Bill, but it says:
“Whilst we welcome the Bill in its current form, we acknowledge that the Bill could be further improved by the addition of a new duty to require ministers to proactively and strategically engage with sentience issues, including through a requirement for the government to maintain a cross-Whitehall Animal Sentience Strategy.”
The Opposition agree.
The Countryside Alliance is clear that it fully supports legal recognition of the sentience of animals, as we do. The British Veterinary Association is clear that the committee must include appropriate veterinary and animal welfare expertise and that this House must pass legislation that enshrines animal sentience in UK law; we agree on those points, too.
We will ask Ministers to work with us to strengthen the Bill and tackle the loopholes used by those who go hunting every Boxing day and the outsourcing of animal cruelty triggered by the trade deals negotiated by this Government. Baroness Hayman rightly pushed for
“guarantees that the Government will consult on membership;
that there will be an open, transparent recruitment process;
that wide-ranging expertise will be ensured;
and that the committee will have genuine independence and not be incorporated as a sub-committee of the Animal Welfare Committee, as we believe this could potentially damage its ability to hold the Government to account.”—[Official Report, House of Lords,
I agree, and I want the Minister to provide that reassurance.
The Bill is about an issue that we all take seriously and want to address. The Opposition will approach the Bill in a constructive manner that improves it and makes it fit for purpose. Our natural environment and animals deserve nothing less, and that is what Labour will deliver in Committee, on Report and back in the other place until the Bill reaches Her Majesty’s desk. I look forward to working with Members on this important Bill in Committee; I hope that the Government will listen to our reasoned amendments to strengthen and improve this long-awaited Bill.
I thank all hon. Members for their contributions to our lively and wide-ranging debate. I particularly thank my hon. Friend Mr French for his excellent maiden speech; I am delighted to have his support. As he said, animal welfare is important to his and all our constituents.
I know that my hon. Friends the Members for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) and for North Herefordshire (Sir Bill Wiggin) are all upholders of animal welfare who care for their own animals. Indeed, I often look fondly at Christmas cards from my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire; they are signed by him and his wife but often bear a picture of him with a cow from his herd, which is quite interesting.
I am pleased to associate myself with the comments about our former colleague the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup, with whom I worked to try to ensure that more cancer nurse specialists are there when people need them. We miss his wise counsel, but we welcome wholeheartedly our new hon. Friend.
The Bill is the latest in a series of steps that the Government are taking to develop and strengthen animal welfare protections. As we have heard from many hon. Members, it builds on the UK’s proud tradition of protecting pets, livestock and wildlife. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State laid out, our nation has a long and proud history in the area, and our action plan for animal welfare is making positive progress.
As my hon. Friend Tracey Crouch pointed out, the Bill has been well discussed in the other place. She also alluded to other Bills. The Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act 2021 came into force in June, increasing the maximum prison sentence for animal cruelty, and has been welcomed by hon. Members. The Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill is currently going through the House. We are supporting private Members’ Bills: the Animals (Penalty Notices) Bill and the Glue Traps (Offences) Bill, which we will debate in Committee tomorrow. We introduced a Government amendment, which I know many right hon. and hon. Members have welcomed, to tackle illegal hare coursing in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. We are progressing a range of other commitments in the action plan, including on cat microchipping, and are moving forward on many other things.
Members asked many questions; I aim to answer them all, but if I do not, my door is always open. My hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon said that we had not yet had a conversation; I am keen to work to deliver good legislation not only for the countryside that I represent but for all our constituents. Our primary job is to make sure we get it right.
I was asked how sentience is defined in the Bill. Our scientific understanding of sentience has come a long way in recent years, but it is well defined and continues to evolve. Baroness Hayman’s work included the reviewing of 300 pieces of research to bring forward the definition of decapods and cephalopods. The situation will carry on evolving, so it would seem to be counter-intuitive to have a fixed definition, because the definition itself is not fixed. We therefore do not deem it necessary to define sentience for the work going forward. We can all recognise that animals are sentient and their welfare should be considered in any decisions we make.
As we have said, the public feel strongly about this issue, which is why we have introduced this legislation. I welcome the comments from my hon. Friend Dr Hudson who, with this vast experience and strong expertise, highlighted the point that the committee will need to cover those areas of expertise. It is for that reason that we are not over-prescriptive. Indeed, as I said to Deidre Brock, somebody in one of the devolved nations could have the key expertise and we should look throughout the United Kingdom to ensure we have the right people on the committee to draw on.
My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border also mentioned constituents who lose dogs and horses. I agree that there are other things we should be doing in the animal space, but we are moving forward with them. The Bill is tightly drafted for a distinct reason, which is why it merely has simple clauses to make sure we get it right.
I apologise to the House for not being here for the debate; I have been chairing the EFRA Committee. The advisory committee will need members with good practical animal welfare experience and an independent chair. It will also need to be given the proper resources and we will need more transparency in respect of the process of advising the Government. I really hope we can have a strong animal welfare process that is actually workable.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and for the letter that he recently wrote to me. We intend to do exactly that and I shall come to that in a moment.
The Bill delivers on our manifesto commitment and provides legal recognition that animals are sentient beings. As I have said, it is a tight, short Bill that establishes an animal sentience committee to consider how individual central Government policies and decision making take account of animal welfare. The Bill contains provisions to ensure that Ministers respond to Parliament in respect of reports published by the animal sentience committee. It establishes that committee and empowers it to scrutinise Minister’s policy formation and implementation decisions, with a view to publishing reports containing its views on whether Ministers have paid all due regard to animals’ welfare needs as sentient beings.
The Bill places a duty on Ministers to respond to the reports by means of a written statement to Parliament within three months’ sitting time and confirms that non-human vertebrates such as dogs, birds, decapod crustaceans and cephalopod molluscs and invertebrates such as lobsters and octopuses are sentient—that is, capable of experiencing pain or suffering. Together, these measures constitute a targeted, timely and proportionate accountability mechanism, as so aptly described by my right hon. Friend Sir David Evennett.
The hon. Members for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) asked why the Bill talks only of adverse effects. It is because the Animal Sentience Committee’s role will be to encourage policy decision makers to think about the positive improvements they could make to animal welfare, rather than just minimising adverse effects. Meeting the welfare needs of animals means avoiding those negative impacts, as well as providing for positive experiences. The reference to an adverse effect allows the committee to consider whether a policy might restrict an animal’s positive experience.
I was asked whether the Animal Sentience Committee will produce an animal welfare strategy, and the answer is no. The Government’s current and future work on animal welfare and conservation is set out clearly in the action plan for animal welfare, and the role of the Animal Sentience Committee is not to devise future policy or strategy.
I was asked whether the committee could produce an annual report. That task is not established by the Bill, although that would not be necessary. There is nothing to prevent the committee from assessing improvements annually, if that fulfils its legislative purposes, or from issuing a report should it so wish.
The Minister slightly misunderstands the point. It is not that Members want the Animal Sentience Committee to produce an annual report but that we want the Secretary of State to have an annual parliamentary moment when the findings of those reports can be discussed and debated on the Floor of the House. Rather than being buried in a report in the House of Commons Library, will it be debated by parliamentarians?
I thank the hon. Gentleman, but I gently point out that there are plenty of other devices for ensuring plenty of parliamentary time. I am sure that we will unpick that in Committee.
Ministers will remain responsible for balancing animal welfare against other important matters of public interest. We are and will remain fully accountable to Parliament for that. My hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon spent some time asking whether the Bill increases the risk of judicial review, and it has been carefully considered and worded to ensure there are only two areas in which we could instigate grounds for judicial review if Ministers fail to fulfil them: by not appointing a committee or by not bringing forward a report in a timely fashion.
I was also asked how the Animal Sentience Committee differs from the Animal Welfare Committee. The latter offers substantive expert advice, whereas the former is a scrutinising body—that is the essential difference. The Animal Sentience Committee is there to give another line of evidence and to help Ministers make decisions, but policy decisions are and will remain a matter for Ministers, for which they are accountable to this House.
Ministers are under no legal obligation to follow the committee’s recommendations. However, there is no point in having a committee that brings forward evidence unless we take it seriously. As I say, it will be balanced in the round to make sure competing interests such as the rural economy or a particular enjoyment, angling or whatever—all those things that are good for people’s mental wellbeing—are considered when we make our decisions.
The key point about the terms of reference is that the Animal Sentience Committee will be classified as an expert committee. It will be funded from within DEFRA’s existing budget and supported by a small secretariat. This will not run and run and be an unsupported Government quango, as suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire. The Bill is drafted to keep sentience at the forefront of policy making and implementation, in line with its statutory functions.
Wide-ranging points were made by colleagues, which flowed into medical research and respect for people’s religious needs. The Bill is tight, and the reason it is a small, tight Bill is that it is important that we are aware that it does not change existing legislation. The committee does not make value judgments.
Hon. Members asked about the inclusion of decapod crustaceans, crabs, lobsters, molluscs, octopus and squid. I want to be absolutely clear about the reasoning behind the effects of that decision. At every point, it is about respecting and recognising animal sentience, and being scientifically led.
I sense the Minister is coming to a conclusion, but she has not answered one of my questions about the composition of the committee. Will she give an assurance that it will take into account rural and agricultural interests?
If the hon. Lady will bear with me, I want to push on as the Chamber is full and it is only fair that I conclude, but I will take her intervention in a second.
It was originally thought that only vertebrates could feel pain, but decapods and cephalopods are invertebrates with complex nervous systems, and I welcome their inclusion. In 2020, DEFRA commissioned the external review of the available scientific evidence, and evaluated the findings of over 300 pieces of peer-reviewed evidence. We carefully considered the recommendations, as we added that measure to the Bill. I reassure hon. Members that the Bill does not and will not change any existing legislation, or place any additional burdens on any part of industry or individuals.
The Minister is always kind at taking interventions. Before she concludes, can she comment on the use of testing on primates that was raised by the SNP spokesperson?
With respect, as the Chamber is full, I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady and talk further about that. It was largely to do with medical testing and military work with animals, and I would be happy to talk to her about medical animal testing, to which it is vital that we have a proportionate approach.
In summary, the Bill offers a proportionate and evidence-led recognition of animal sentience in UK law. There is over whelming public demand for sentience legislation. We committed to introduce it in our manifesto, and similar pledges were made by parties represented on the Opposition Benches. I look forward to working with hon. Members across the House to deliver on our promises, and I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.