Amendment 3

Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill [HL] - Report (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 6:45 pm on 6th December 2021.

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Lord Robathan:

Moved by Lord Robathan

3: Clause 1, page 1, line 5, leave out subsection (2)

Photo of Lord Robathan Lord Robathan Conservative

My Lords, in the absence of my noble friend Lord Mancroft, I have been asked to introduce this amendment. I think he is either on his sick bed or on a horse; I am not quite sure which.

Before I start, I will pay tribute to the Minister. He is making a pretty good fist of what is almost indefensible. I congratulate him but gently remind him that, although this may not be the result of social media, if memory serves me right he told us in Committee that, while still a Member of the House of Commons, he had had something like 200 messages—probably mostly from Liberal Democrat opponents—saying that the Government had to introduce an animal sentience Bill. He will correct me if I am wrong, but I think he told me that.

Amendment 3 and other amendments wish to introduce some clarity regarding the Government’s intentions about appointments to the committee and the committee’s own role in those appointments. For instance, should the Secretary of State appoint people; if so, what qualifications should they have and for how long should they be appointed; and, to quote from subsection (3), what “terms” will determine the appointments? I know my noble friend Lady McIntosh, a fellow “extremist right-winger”, will speak on later amendments on this subject.

One of the concerns expressed repeatedly as the Bill has made progress is the lack of clarity about the role of the committee, how members will be appointed and how the committee will operate. In response, the Minister agreed to publish the draft terms of reference, which has now been done, but the draft terms provide little additional clarity, and there is little if anything binding current or future Ministers. Indeed, the shortcomings of the terms of reference seem to confirm the concerns expressed by noble Lords at earlier stages. The terms indicate the establishment of this animal welfare centre of expertise, bringing together the various animal welfare advisory committees already in existence, as well as the new committee. This seems to be a recognition of the potential overlap and conflict between the various committees yet, unlike other committees, the sentience committee will enjoy statutory status and a reporting function to Parliament.

Perhaps most concerning is the ongoing lack of clarity as to whether the committee will be looking at and advising on the process of making and implementing policy, or indeed of policy itself. The terms of reference state that once established, it will be for the committee to formally ratify its objectives and responsibilities. As a committee established by statute, its objectives and responsibilities should be found in the establishing Act of Parliament, which we are discussing now. It should not be for the committee to ratify its “objectives and responsibilities”. These amendments, together with proposed new Schedule 1, seek to give some clarity and certainty where this is currently lacking.

I do not wish to repeat things that have already been said or detain the House unnecessarily, but I believe that the terms of reference leave unresolved a great many issues.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative 7:00 pm, 6th December 2021

I congratulate my noble friend Lord Robathan on stepping into the breach at such short notice and so eloquently moving Amendment 3. I will speak to Amendments 4, 6, 8 and 10 in my name, and I associate myself with earlier comments on the general thrust of this Bill put by the noble Lord, Lord Marland, in moving his Amendment 2 in the earlier group.

I share the general concern of those who are sceptical about the need for this Bill. I see it as a further onslaught on farming and livestock producers, particularly those in the uplands. I yield to no one in my praise and admiration for the way they go out in all weathers to produce lambs and suckler cattle at this time of year and, especially, in the spring. We are conscious of the fact that, in the north-east of England, there are some 12,000 people without electricity; presumably, the farmers are having to milk the cows by hand, which, of course, takes a lot longer than would normally be the case by other means.

As I mentioned earlier, I would prefer that we keep to the basics of the manifesto. I have now had a chance to reacquaint myself with Article 13, which states:

“In formulating and implementing the Union’s agriculture, fisheries, transport, internal market, research and technological development and space policies, the Union and the Member States shall, since animals are sentient beings, pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals.”

This neatly makes the case for the main thrust of my argument—the reason why Clause 1 is not required is that it is adequately covered by Article 13. I look forward to hearing a strong argument and reassurance from my noble friend the Minister as to why that should not be the case.

I echo the remarks of my noble friend Lord Marland; it would seem that the Government are drifting away from supporting farming, maintaining self-sufficiency in our food production and our high standards of food production. However, through this Bill, the subsequent regulations and, no doubt, the advice of the committee being set up by Clause 1, we are actually making life much more difficult, in particular for livestock producers. I put on record my regret for that, particularly with respect to tenant farmers—and 48% of farmers in north Yorkshire fall into that category.

In speaking specifically to my Amendments 4, 6, 8 and 10, I refer to the earlier arguments put by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, and pay tribute to the work done by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, in private practice on what constitutes “an act” for the purpose of judicial review. I humbly submit to my noble friend the Minister that the animal sentience committee’s terms of reference—a final draft of which was sent to us on 17 November 2021—will indeed constitute an act that would be justiciable as regards a judicial review. Is there a strong reason why that would not be the case?

In Committee, when I moved similar amendments, I did not obtain the reassurances from the Minister that I sought at that stage. He argued that he did not want to put on the face of the Bill the length of time for an appointment. I argue in my Amendment 4 that appointments under Clause 1 should be

“for a period of three years”.

I argue in Amendment 6:

“The membership of the Committee is to include, amongst others … a veterinary surgeon; … an active farmer or person with knowledge of livestock production or land management; and … a person with knowledge of slaughterhouses”.

Abattoirs are, if you like, the final nail in the coffin for the animal, which is sent on its way. That is my plea for more detail in the Bill.

Equally, I have set out perhaps greater detail in Amendment 8. I lifted this text from an earlier Bill—it might have been the Trade Bill, now the Trade Act, with respect to the Trade Remedies Authority. I forget which Bill it was, but I am grateful for the help that I received from the Public Bill Office in drafting the amendment. In desperation, I have also retabled Amendment 10 to leave out Clause 1 in case I do not get satisfaction and reassurance from the Minister this evening.

The Minister’s argument is flawed. If he does not wish the detail to be on the face of the Bill since this would constitute an act that is justiciable in terms of a judicial review, I argue that it was equally inappropriate to put in his letter to us of 17 November, as well as in a separate printout of the terms of reference, what the remit and constitution of the committee would be. Even though it is a separate document, that is as justiciable as it would be if it were on the face of the Bill.

I am extremely proud to have been a student of constitutional law at Edinburgh University under the excellent tutelage of Professor JDB Mitchell, who was at the time a leading expert in administrative law. I keep his book in the kitchen. My husband sometimes thinks that I am confusing administrative law theory with my recipes, which is why I often leave the cooking to him. A more up-to-date authority that I turn to is the Public Law Project, which sets out, for example, what can be challenged. It says:

“Decisions, acts, and failures to act by public bodies exercising their public functions are all potentially challengeable by judicial review.”

I must be simple in not being able to follow my noble friend’s argument but, to be absolutely clear, why is it not acceptable to put in the Bill the level of detail that I am seeking, but acceptable to put it in the supplementary documents? These are easier to amend but, in my view, because they constitute an administrative act, they will be equally justiciable.

I end with a last request to understand why, when just about every other Bill introduced by the Government since 2017 has waxed lyrical as to the composition and remit of the committee it set up, that is deemed not to be subject to judicial review, yet this is subject to judicial review. With those few remarks, I look forward very much to receiving reassurances from my noble friend the Minister.

Photo of Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, this is an interesting group of amendments seeking to specify the membership of the committee. The noble Lord, Lord Robathan, and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, have set out the rationale for their amendments and there are some contradictions. Amendments 3 and 5 would remove the Secretary of State from the process altogether, whereas Amendment 8 would leave the power to appoint with the Secretary of State. Amendment 6 would ensure that certain levels of expertise were included in the committee’s membership.

I agree that certain skills and level of expertise are important, and can see immediately from the list that a single person can have more than one skill level and fulfil more than one function. For instance, the law currently requires that a veterinary surgeon must be present in a slaughterhouse. Therefore, he or she will have knowledge of the way a slaughterhouse operates.

However, whether such people will have time to sit on the animal sentience committee remains to be seen. A veterinary surgeon who no longer works in a slaughterhouse might do, depending on their current workload, but setting the membership in legislation could be something of a millstone around the neck of the chair or the Secretary of State, whoever is recruiting the membership.

The list of what the animal sentience committee can and cannot do under the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, is extensive and somewhat cumbersome. I believe it could be streamlined. I look forward with interest to the Minister’s response to these issues.

Photo of Lord Hannan of Kingsclere Lord Hannan of Kingsclere Conservative

My Lords, this block of amendments goes to the heart of what is wrong with the proposal. We all have an idea of who “the expert” is and what kind of person will give us the answers we want, whether that is a vet, someone banned from being a member of an animal rights movement, or whatever. The idea that there is some disinterested, impartial, patriotic expert who can somehow rise above the rest of us and be the only objective person is one of the most pernicious ideas in modern politics. We all have our opinions and starting assumptions, the “expert” more than anybody, if by “expert” we mean someone has spent his or her career in one field. They are the last person to whom we should contract out our decisions as a parliamentary assembly.

I totally understand that the Minister will want some flexibility, but a later amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Howard of Rising proposes a sunset clause. Maybe we could see whether the committee works out with the experts as proposed in the way the Minister assures us. If it does there will be no problem, and, if not, we will have another go at it. Perhaps that would be the wise amendment for the Government to accept.

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, the amendments in this group all refer to the make-up of the membership of the committee and how it is appointed. Noble Lords who were with us in Committee may remember that when we debated membership of the committee, a number of us, including me, put forward amendments about its make-up and who should be on it. By the end of that debate, I felt that it had become absurd to prescribe exactly what kind of expert we should have and what area they should come from, because by the time we had finished it looked like the animal sentience committee would have a membership of around 170. We have to be practical and make sure we get the right kind of people on the committee without being specific in the Bill about exactly what job or experience they should have, because where do you end? At what point do you draw the line?

So it is important that within the terms of reference we have a clear understanding of what the committee’s role is; that is, to underpin and enhance a fundamental constitutional principle—namely, ministerial accountability. It is also important that the terms of reference make it clear that the committee is expected to operate and promote a culture of openness. It is therefore important that we have the right and proper people on it.

I am sure the Minister will point it out when he speaks, but the terms of reference clearly state that appointees will be experts—I am disappointed that the noble Lord, Lord Hannan, is of the same opinion as Michael Gove that, we “have had enough of experts”, but there we are. Appointees will be experts with the appropriate experience relating to policy decision-making and the welfare of animals and the Secretary of State may seek to promote a diversity of expertise—which is important, as we need a proper diversity of expertise—so that the committee can offer high-quality advice on policy decision-making and its animal welfare implications.

From my perspective, and that of these Benches, the concerns that we raised in Committee about what the committee should look like and who should be appointed as a member have been answered by the terms of reference, and we are happy with what we see in that document.

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 7:15 pm, 6th December 2021

I thank noble Lords for their valuable scrutiny of the Bill, and the envisaged structure and operation of the animal sentience committee. I will address the points raised in turn.

I start with Amendments 3 and 5 in the name of my noble friend Lord Mancroft and ably proposed by my noble friend Lord Robathan, concerning the membership of the committee. These amendments would limit the power of the Defra Secretary of State in appointing members to the committee. We believe that the Defra Secretary of State is very well placed to be responsible for those appointments.

Defra has a long track record of recruiting expert advisers to give balanced, reasonable advice on animal welfare issues. Appointments will be decided in accordance with the Governance Code on Public Appointments, and this is important. The aim of the code is to ensure the best applicants are appointed. Anybody suitably qualified and wishing to apply would need to be assessed alongside other candidates according to a rigorous selection procedure. Applicants would, in line with best practice, be required to declare any potential conflicts of interest to the recruitment panel. Your Lordships can be reassured that the process of recruitment of members to the committee will be rigorous and that members will be chosen on the merits of their expertise. This is what is needed for the committee to perform its role.

I thank my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering for her Amendment 4, concerning term limits for members of the committee. Before I get into the meat of her point, I will say that our commitment to supporting farmers is total. I ask her to read, if she has not already, a copy of the speech made by the Secretary of State on Thursday; it sets out our commitment to support farming and farmers, particularly in the upland areas that I know I know are dear to her.

I agree with my noble friend that the committee should benefit from fresh thinking and new perspectives, but this should be balanced against the risk of unnecessary churn and loss of talent. Setting inflexible term limits could prove disruptive to the committee’s work. It would be regrettable if a member’s term ended mid-report, for example.

Additionally, we should allow some room for manoeuvre in exceptional circumstances; for example, the ongoing pandemic. This was a point well made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, who may not have been referring to the pandemic, but her point was right. The pandemic disrupted recruitment to several organisations, and I would not want to take away the ability of the Secretary of State to apply short extensions to members’ terms if necessary.

We have sought to strike a sensible balance in the approach outlined in the draft terms of reference—I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, for her points about that. Members would, in general, be appointed for terms of four years, renewable once. This is the standard approach for public appointments of this nature. These are the same terms on which we appoint members of other animal welfare expert bodies such as the Animal Welfare Committee and the Zoos Expert Committee. It is tried and tested.

Of course, there will be safeguards. As set out in the terms of reference, the Secretary of State reserves the right to terminate appointments if he or she considers that a committee member’s performance, attendance or conduct has been unsatisfactory, or if there is a conflict of interest which threatens the integrity of the committee. I hope my noble friend will agree that our proposed approach strikes the right balance.

I turn to Amendment 6, also in the name of my noble friend Lady McIntosh, concerning the membership of the committee. I agree with my noble friend that vets and livestock farmers have a lot to contribute when considering animal welfare. We recognise the importance of having experts with hands-on experience of working with animals on the committee. Anyone who is an expert in the fields of animal behaviour, animal welfare, neurophysiology, veterinary science, law and public administration who wished to apply would be assessed alongside other candidates via a rigorous selection procedure based on fair and open competition. We want to ensure that the committee benefits from a diversity of expertise, and we hope to encourage applications from a wide range of specialists.

That is one reason why we have sought to avoid being too prescriptive about the make-up of the committee, be that in the Bill or in the draft terms of reference. Also, the expertise required by the committee may change from time to time as the scientific understanding of the welfare needs of animals continues to evolve. It is important that the Bill leaves scope to adjust the committee’s membership as required. It is also important to avoid creating requirements in the Bill that are so specific that they lead to appropriate candidates being unable to fulfil the criteria. For these reasons, I would prefer an approach that encourages the recruitment of a diverse range of experts to the committee, rather than setting out too-rigid specifications in statute.

I turn to another amendment in the name of my noble friend Lady McIntosh, Amendment 8, concerning the governance and operation of the committee. When we last discussed this amendment, my noble friend stressed that it is

“intended to be entirely helpful”,—[GC 298.]">Official Report, 6/7/21; col. GC 298.] and I am grateful for the constructive suggestions that she has offered. The draft terms of reference reflect many of the points raised in the amendment. As I have said, they make provision for the Secretary of State to remove underperforming members, and they also propose term lengths and performance management procedures.

My noble friend has said that her amendment is based on the text used in the Trade Act to describe the Trade Remedies Authority. I would argue that the committee’s role and remit is very different from the authority’s, and so provisions appropriate to the latter are not necessarily suitable for this committee. For example, there is no need to create executive and non-executive classes of membership for the committee. It will be the members themselves who prepare reports, with assistance from the committee’s secretariat. There is little need to codify any delegation of functions. In the committee’s case, it is the Secretary of State who should ultimately be responsible for its good governance and effective recruitment. The draft terms of reference make this responsibility clear. I would be reluctant to dilute this accountability by delegating such responsibilities as the amendment proposes.

We have proposed an approach that makes Ministers accountable for ensuring the committee is run well, while avoiding excessive red tape. We want a timely, targeted and proportionate accountability mechanism. This requires the committee to have sufficient confidence and independence to offer meaningful scrutiny, but without conferring legal powers and responsibilities on it which are not appropriate for a body of this size and remit.

Finally, I turn to Amendment 10, also in the name of my noble friend Lady McIntosh. I understand that my noble friend and other Peers have queries regarding the need for such a committee and suggest its functions could be subsumed into the Animal Welfare Committee—a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, earlier. The two committees have different roles. The animal sentience committee needs to be established in statute to provide for effective parliamentary accountability. The Animal Welfare Committee operates very effectively as a non-statutory body that provides expert advice on specific issues set out in remits issued by the Government. While both committees hold expertise in a similar area, their roles are distinct. For the legislation to require Ministers to publish a written response to a report by the committee, and to lay the response before Parliament, the committee must be referred to in the Bill. It is on this basis that the committee has a legal persona, and this role could not be undertaken by a completely non-statutory body such as the Animal Welfare Committee.

The animal sentience committee and the Animal Welfare Committee will be affiliates sitting within the animal welfare centre of excellence. We expect that, within the centre, the committee will have a particularly close working relationship with the Animal Welfare Committee. The two committees may refer issues to each other as required. However, the function to issue reports on how well central government policy decisions have taken the needs of sentient animals into account can be undertaken only by the animal sentience committee, in accordance with the parameters set out in the Bill.

I hope that I have been able to reassure noble Lords and that they will feel content not to press their amendments.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, he has not explained why he argued so vigorously in Committee that, if the details that are now in the terms of reference appeared in the Bill, they might be subject to judicial review. His view must be that, because they are in the terms of reference, they are not subject to judicial review. In my view, they constitute an administrative act, so how is he going to get round this and avoid judicial reviews?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

If, as my noble friend suggests, we put details in the Bill that incorporated the types of people who had to be on the committee, and then if, for example, someone were off sick or had not been appointed or for whatever reason was not available at the point at which the committee wrote a report, that would leave the Government open to a successful judicial review. These are matters that we think sit absolutely in accordance with other committees that are set up across government, where the terms of reference are amendable without having to go back to legislation. This is a fast-moving area of policy and, in future, we may feel, after thinking about it for a while, that the terms of reference need to be amended. This allows, in an entirely normal way, the Secretary of State to make those amendments in consultation with others. I do not think that it would be wise to put it in the Bill because that would increase the risk of judicial review.

Photo of Lord Hamilton of Epsom Lord Hamilton of Epsom Conservative

I have two questions for my noble friend before he sits down. Does he accept that the Animal Welfare Committee could have been put on a statutory basis and its remit expanded to take in animal sentience? Secondly, if there were a change in Government after the next election, could a Labour Secretary of State put totally new people on the sentience committee?

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Let us deal with the second question first, then I will see if I can remember the first. A future Government can bring in legislation, if they have a big enough majority to get it through, to do anything they like within the law. We are a sovereign nation and they could take those decisions—indeed, they could populate arm’s-length bodies and expert committees with who they like.

On the first question, no we could not, because the Animal Welfare Committee has a different remit. For starters, it is a UK-wide committee and it is not a creature of statute; it gives expert advice as and when required. We wanted to have a body that is a creature of statute, so that there is parliamentary accountability in the process of policy-making.

Photo of Lord Robathan Lord Robathan Conservative

My Lords, for one glorious moment I thought that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, was going to support the amendment that I moved—she disappointed me, but then what do you expect?

I do not wish to detain my noble friend the Minister any longer. I will let him off the agony and let him go and have some dinner. Notwithstanding the fact that I remain convinced that there is very little clarity either in the Bill or the terms of reference, I wish to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 3 withdrawn.

Amendments 4 to 6 not moved.

Sitting suspended.