Amendment 9

Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill [HL] - Report (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 8:50 pm on 6th December 2021.

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Viscount Ridley:

Moved by Viscount Ridley

9: Clause 1, leave out Clause 1 and insert the following new Clause—“Animal Sentience Committee(1) A Committee within the Cabinet Office, called the Animal Sentience Committee, will be established and maintained.(2) The function of the Committee will be to determine whether in the process of formulating and implementing policy it is satisfied that Ministers of State and the departments of state are having, or have had, all due regard to the ways in which the policy might have an adverse effect on the welfare of animals as sentient beings.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment is intended to reduce conflict over membership by creating an internal committee of the Cabinet Office.

Photo of Viscount Ridley Viscount Ridley Conservative

My Lords, I will speak very briefly to Amendments 9, 11, 33 and 37 in this group, which are in my name. Noble Lords will be glad to know that I have torn up three-quarters of my speech to speed things up. I declare my interest as a fortunate owner of farmland, woodland, moorland and river. I affect the welfare of sentient animals, both positively and negatively, from time to time.

Together, these amendments would cut some of the Gordian knots that we have wrestled with today, and would deliver an animal sentience committee that reported to Parliament but was independent of Defra. The role of the committee as proposed in this amendment must be understood together with the animal welfare strategy that it would be required to produce under Amendment 11. The committee would then be required to report to Parliament on the compliance of Ministers with this process, as in Amendment 33, to which Ministers must respond, as in Amendment 37.

If the sentience committee is to ensure that animal welfare is properly considered, and to act as an accountability mechanism to Parliament, to create it as a creature of Defra raises a number of problems. It may not be welcomed by other departments, which, as the draft terms of reference confirm, are under no obligation to co-operate with it. A committee within the Cabinet Office would have a clear, overarching remit, set a cross-departmental standard and be independent of other departments, whose Ministers would still be required to respond to the committee’s reports to Parliament. The other advantage of a statutory committee within the Cabinet Office is that it avoids the problems identified at earlier stages of the Bill around who should or should not sit on the committee, which we have just discussed.

A committee within the Cabinet Office that is not a Defra committee would be better placed, I would argue, to drive change across government, avoid inter-departmental resentments—as I said earlier—and ensure that all due regard to animal welfare was properly and consistently applied. Then, as with the current proposal, it would be for parliamentarians to hold Ministers to account.

Amendment 11 would ensure that there was a clear strategy setting out how, in the process of developing, deciding and implementing policies, the animal welfare implications of those policies must be considered.

Amendment 33 largely replicates the existing Bill but takes account of the animal welfare strategy, while still allowing the sentience committee to play a role where it feels that there has been a failure of process in compliance with the strategy before a policy decision has been made. This would seem a much more impactful approach to driving change across government than the current proposals.

Amendment 37 ensures that Ministers must explain to Parliament any failure to comply with the animal welfare strategy identified by the sentience committee. It would also mean, for example, that if the matter was a policy relating to the Department of Health, it would be for the Health Secretary to respond. The Bill is not, at the moment, clear on this, although the draft terms of reference make it clear that that is what is intended. That intention should be made clear in the Bill.

I hope it is clear that these amendments are intended to be helpful and are in the spirit of trying to turn a bad Bill into a less bad Bill. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, there is a large number of amendments in this group, so in the interests of time and the number of groups yet to be debated I shall focus on Amendment 38 in my name, which would insert a new clause after Clause 3 requiring the ASC to submit an annual report on its work to both Houses of Parliament. I shall also speak to Amendment 21, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising.

The animal sentience committee is being set up as a non-departmental public body with an advisory function. The latest available figures suggest that 63% of such bodies present an annual report to Parliament. It is clearly in the interests of accountability and transparency for MPs and Peers to be able to regularly scrutinise the committee’s work. A yearly report would also allow parliamentarians to gain a wider view of animal sentience issues over the preceding 12 months and of any emerging policy trends that impact on it. Requiring an annual report through this new clause would ensure that this essential transparency and accountability measure is sustained throughout the lifetime of the committee. I urge the Minister to consider including it in the Bill.

On Amendment 21, noble Lords have previously discussed in Committee the prescriptive wording of the question that Clause 2 requires the ASC to consider. These discussions highlighted how this wording, which specifies that only “adverse” effects should be considered, could lead to important opportunities to enhance animal welfare being missed. On the first day of Committee on 6 July, the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Benyon, signalled his agreement, saying that

“the committee should be free to consider positive effects”.—[GC 309.]">Official Report, 6/7/21; col. GC 309.]

This appears to have informed the welcome provision in the circulated terms of reference, which states:

The Committee may consider how ministers have had a positive effect on animals as sentient beings in the policy-making process.”

We welcome this. However, the committee could also prioritise supporting government departments in minimising the possibility of any policy having a harmful effect on the welfare of animals. This is a sensible approach, which balances giving the committee the freedom to consider all opportunities to enhance animal welfare with the need to prioritise the avoidance of harmful effects.

However, the wording of the Bill itself remains unchanged and continues to require the committee to only consider “adverse effects”. This contradiction could lead to complications. An ASC report focused on positive effects could be challenged, with any defence based on the licence to consider positive effects conferred by the terms of reference being undermined by the prohibition on doing so in the text of the legislation. I hope that the Minister will consider this, as it is a simple amendment. Removing the word “adverse” from the Bill text would allow a sensible approach—which is in the published terms of reference—to be safely and fully implemented by the committee.

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 9:00 pm, 6th December 2021

I thank your Lordships for amendments, and I hope that I can provide some reassurance on the points made.

I start with Amendment 9, in the name of my noble friend Lord Ridley, which would establish the animal sentience committee as a committee within the Cabinet Office. I would argue that Defra is well placed to host the animal sentience committee—which I will refer henceforth to as “the committee”. Defra’s hosting allows it to be affiliated as a constituent of Defra’s animal welfare centre of expertise, alongside other expert animal welfare committees, such as the Animal Welfare Committee. This provides for these committees to draw upon one another’s expertise much more easily than if they were hosted separately.

In his explanatory statement, my noble friend suggested that, if the committee were under the Cabinet Office, it would be easier to reach agreement on membership. It is not clear how changing the host department would achieve this. We believe that our approach to recruiting experts means that the committee will have the right experts. The same considerations would apply regardless of which department was responsible for supporting the committee.

Importantly, Amendment 9 would mean that the committee would be non-statutory, with no independent existence from government. This would undermine its purpose—one of proportionate scrutiny and accountability. A statutory committee allows experts the appropriate independence to achieve its function.

Amendments 11, 33 and 37, also in the name of my noble friend Lord Ridley, would require the animal sentience committee to publish an animal welfare strategy and for the committee and the Government to undertake actions associated with this. In this Bill, we have given the committee the power to produce reports about individual policies containing its views on to what extent the UK Government are having, or have had, all due regard to the ways in which those policies might have an adverse effect on the welfare of animals as sentient beings. We believe that it is important for the committee itself to decide which policies to report on, within the remit of the terms of reference. We would expect it to form an overview of all policy decisions with a significant effect on the welfare of animals. This need not cover every single policy decision but could cover those which are of a higher priority to animal welfare.

To ask this committee to produce reports relating to every department annually would be a significant burden and would mean less scrutiny on those policies that really matter. We want the committee to be targeted, timely and proportionate in how it operates. It is better to focus on policy decisions which have the most impact. The co-operation of departments is necessary for the committee to be able to work effectively, and Defra is already working to secure this. I believe a collaborative approach is the most appropriate one.

The committee’s role is not to set out a strategy for animal welfare nor to devise plans for future policy. These are clearly a matter for the Government. In May this year, the Government launched Our Action Plan for Animal Welfare. This sets out the Government’s current and future reform programme on animal welfare, covering both kept animals and wild animals under a series of strategic themes. I do not see the need for the committee to publish its own animal welfare strategy.

I hope that the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, feels that we have already covered Amendment 13 and the remit of the animal sentience committee in group 2. But I am happy for him to raise issues in a moment if he feels we have not.

I turn to Amendments 17, 22 and 34, in the name of my noble friend Lord Mancroft, concerning the reports of the animal sentience committee. The committee will be made up of eight to 12 members, and we anticipate it will take forward six to eight reports a year. However, Amendment 17 would require it to issue a report on all policy decisions. This is neither feasible nor desirable. We want proportionate and targeted scrutiny and accountability, and in so doing, the committee is to consider which policy decisions it deems most important. It should not be beholden to consider every policy decision regardless of its importance to animal welfare.

The question in Clause 2(2) is designed to allow the committee to express its views in an informative way to provide a proper understanding of the decision-making process followed. We believe that the committee’s recommendations are likely to be nuanced. The purpose of these reforms is not to impose a simple “pass or fail” test, which Amendments 22 and 34 suggests it should. That is not necessary, and it is likely to be unhelpful, and indeed unworkable, in many cases.

There may well be cases where the committee’s report into a policy decision does not identify major concerns but makes recommendations that would further improve future decision-making. The proposed amendments would not cater for this situation. While I understand, in principle, the rationale for limiting the requirement for Ministers to reply only to reports which identify major concerns, this would generate missed opportunities to consider valuable recommendations for improvements.

I turn to Amendments 20 and 25, in the name of my noble friend Lord Howard of Rising, which query the use of the phrase “all due regard” when describing what the committee is to consider in its scrutiny of policy formulation and implementation. The technical meaning of the phrase “all due regard” in this instance is not considered to be materially different to that of the phrase “due regard”; “all due regard” emphasises that the committee should assess the extent to which all relevant factors affecting animal welfare are being considered.

I turn now to Amendments 21 and 26, again from my noble friend Lord Howard of Rising, which seek to clarify that the committee can consider positive impacts on the welfare of some animals of a policy alongside the negative effects of that policy on the welfare of other animals. This point was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. Meeting the welfare needs of animals includes avoiding negative impacts as well as providing for positive experiences. Depriving an animal of its ability to have positive experiences, like exhibiting natural behaviours, counts as an adverse effect. I can assure your Lordships that the reference to “an adverse effect” in the Bill allows the committee to consider whether the positive experiences of an animal have been restricted.

We consider that the committee is already able to express its views on the ways in which a policy decision may not be able to maximise the welfare needs of animals, and that it may set out missed opportunities to make positive improvements to animal welfare. This is outlined in the draft terms of reference. Furthermore, I assure my noble friend that the Bill does not change existing law on pest control or impose any new restrictions on individuals or businesses.

I turn to Amendment 32 in the name of my noble friend Lord Howard of Rising, concerning the Bill’s scope with respect to the devolved Administrations. The committee will select policy decisions made by the UK Government on which it can issue reports. This will cover all matters that do not fall within the legislative competence of the devolved Administrations. As animal welfare policy is a devolved issue, it is a matter for the devolved Administrations as to how they wish to recognise and consider animal sentience when formulating and implementing devolved policies. It would be inappropriate for their Ministers to be held to account to the UK Parliament on matters that fall within their legislative competence.

Scotland has already used secondary legislation to establish an advisory body, the Scottish Animal Welfare Commission, which advises its Government on those policy areas for which they are responsible. The commission has been asked to consider how the welfare needs of sentient animals are being met by policies of the Scottish Government. The Senedd and the Northern Ireland Assembly are free to introduce their own legislation, should they wish. In addition, the Welsh Government have powers to set up a committee through secondary legislation if they wish to.

Amendment 38 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, would require the animal sentience committee to publish an annual report. We wish to ensure that the committee is as effective as possible in undertaking its role. Reports issued by the committee will be made available on its public website. Ministers will be required to prepare a written response to these reports for Parliament, which will create opportunity to hold Ministers to account. This process will provide a great deal of transparency about the committee’s work and the policies it has chosen to consider. Further transparency will be provided through the Freedom of Information Act and the Public Records Act.

We will conduct regular performance reviews of the committee to ensure that it is fulfilling its purpose. However, we would not want to commit to an onerous annual reporting process for the committee in statute. This could take resources away from the committee’s primary scrutiny role. Ministers are required to lay timely written responses to every committee report before Parliament. This means that Parliament will be well aware of what the committee has been working on.

Finally, government Amendment 36 is a technical amendment that clarifies the time limit in which Ministers must respond to reports published by the committee. The Bill requires Ministers to lay a written response to a report before Parliament within three months of the report’s publication. This amendment excludes from that time limit certain periods in which Parliament is not sitting. We wish to make it clear that, in these limited circumstances, a Minister may submit a written response at a more appropriate time. We are committed to Ministers providing timely responses. That is why we want the time limit established by the Bill to be clear. I am indebted to my noble friend Lord Forsyth of Drumlean for raising this issue. While we did not have the opportunity to discuss this amendment in Committee, we have considered his contribution and improved the wording of the Bill.

Photo of Viscount Ridley Viscount Ridley Conservative

My Lords, I am obviously a little disappointed that my brilliant suggestion about the Cabinet Office committee has not fallen on more fertile ground. To use an analogy, you would keep a sheep dog in a kennel rather than with the sheep, but I will not pursue that one. I thank noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 9 withdrawn.

Amendments 10 and 11 not moved.

Clause 2: Reports of the Committee

Amendments 12 to 22 not moved.