Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill [HL] - Report (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 9:15 pm on 6th December 2021.
Moved by Lord Moylan
23: Clause 2, page 1, line 16, at end insert “, but such recommendations may only be made after the report referred to in subsection (1) has been published in an academic journal following peer review.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment ensures the academic robustness of the Committee’s work.
My Lords, Amendments 23 and 35 give the House the opportunity to discuss the robustness of the science on which the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill is allegedly resting. I detect a lack of enthusiasm for the wide-ranging debate on this topic that might have otherwise ensued at a more timely part of the day, so I shall keep my remarks as brief as can.
I was once on the Zambezi and had the opportunity to observe the crocodiles. These are largely placid animals that sit basking in the sun but, when hungry, they can move with terrifying rapidity and can kill very rapidly indeed. The person I was with, who knew about crocodiles, said—and I will stand corrected by the noble Lord, Lord Trees, if I have got any of this wrong, of course—that the brain of a crocodile is a very small thing. The size of a pea was suggested to me, and that there was no capacity within the brain at all, neurologically, for a function that allowed for any memory. The consoling thought that was offered to me was that, since a crocodile cannot remember anything, if it did eat me, it was not personal.
We are about to enact a Bill—we are close to passing it through our House—without limitation that, as I understand it, declares a crocodile to be a sentient creature; that is, a creature that can experience pleasure and pain, and science is prayed in aid to support this. I take the crocodile simply as an example, there are other creatures with brains almost as small as a crocodile and probably even smaller that are being covered and in scope of this Bill. The difficulty of this is, they have very limited functions, partly because the size of the brain simply limits the functions that they can actually have.
No one doubts, as a matter of science, that a crocodile, as I say taken as an example, will respond in a certain way if a sufficiently strong stimulus is applied to it. That is a neurological reaction explicable by the movement of chemicals and electrons through the nervous system and in what passes for the crocodile’s brain. What we are being asked to do here goes way beyond that. How can this be extended scientifically—not by analogy, not by empathy, but scientifically—to include the concept of pain in a crocodile as we understand pain.
Pain is more than a simple neurological reaction. Pain, as we understand it, exists in anticipation. One worries about it coming in one’s direction. It exists in reflection; one thinks about it in the past. One has coping strategies for dealing with it, and so on. Most importantly, it exists as a time of abnormality. Pain is abnormal; we want the pain to go away, so that we can go back to normal. How can a creature with no memory have any conception of what normality is, let alone what abnormality is? How can it understand pain, beyond that neurological reaction, in any sense that we understand it? Yet there are scientists, or people who hold themselves forth as scientists, who say that scientifically that link can be made when it is actually almost incomprehensible for most of us. Who are the scientists in whom the Government are placing such faith for the scientific basis of animal sentience that they claim to exist? Where do they gather? Which respectable journals do that publish in? Who is this cadre of leading animal sentience scientists?
Of course, there are animal welfare scientists and veterinarians, and people like that, but this is very specialised, a very narrow and a relatively new field—only over the last 20 years. It has no leading lights at the moment; it is, I would suggest to your Lordships’ House, predominantly ideologically driven, and it is based in large measure on funding being supplied by what might be thought of as groups and foundations with a prior view.
So my question really to my noble friend, even as he trembles on the brink of his success—he is very close to getting his way and seeing this Bill through with practically no amendments—and before he commits the nation to this Bill and this version of animal sentience, is whether he should not think twice about the claims that he makes and the confidence that he rests in what is a very ropey branch of science. Should that not lead him to pull back and consider this amendment, which requires peer review of scientific reports from the committee? In fact, it requires peer review of all reports, and I realise now that that is a bit silly, because some of them will just be procedural—but we can work on the wording. On the scientific reports of the committee, could not he and I work together to get an appropriate amendment at Third Reading that would try to make sure that we rest at last on robust science and not on something ropey and partisan? If it is ropey and partisan, we will come deeply to regret it.
My Lords, I shall just comment very briefly on what my noble friend has just said. I disagreed with him on one point, when he said that there were no leading lights in the science of sentience. I draw his attention to a wonderful book published by Oxford University Press just a few months ago by the great Cambridge psychologist Nick Humphrey. Nick says, after 60,000 words of argument, as he put it to me in an email:
“My conclusions are quite radical—and at odds with both academic and popular wisdom. I argue that the only animals that have evolved to be sentient are mammals and birds, and not all of these. We really don’t need to worry about lobsters or octopuses.”
He did not add, “or crocodiles”.
So I think that there is developing science on this, and my noble friend is quite right that it needs to be peer-reviewed and investigated. I think that we will find the goalposts move on what is sentient, and that it is not a given that everything with a backbone is sentient or, indeed, that some of the decapods and others are as sentient as we have heard in recent years.
My Lords, I remind the House of my various interests in the Countryside Alliance, including chairing the organisation. I apologise for being unable to take part in this Report stage earlier, but I was isolating and was only just released less than two hours ago. However, I was watching the proceedings very carefully, and it seemed to me that there was an emerging pattern—a serial rejection of all the amendments proposed by my noble friends and others, whether on issues of retrospectivity, on the composition of the committee, or on the matter of the risk that this committee is going to present of more judicial review. I could only admire my noble friend’s élan in batting away each of these suggestions, which came from former Ministers, from a former Leader of the House and from a former leader of the party—and from a brace at least of Queen’s Counsel, as well as suggestions and advice from a former Master of the Rolls. They were all swatted away elegantly by my noble friend.
I simply wish to say that my noble friends are sentient beings, too, and I believe that we are being treated cruelly. There is a case for reference to an independent committee to make advice as to whether all these suggestions should have been taken more seriously. Perhaps, if Ministers dismiss the advice of the animal sentience committee with the same alacrity, we will have little to fear from its future proceedings.
However, the truth is that there is less of a risk to specific aspects of farming or other activities that we can identify now than, I judge, of gluing up government with a constant process of analysis and rejection, followed by review, of proposals made by the committee. Indeed, there is to be not just one committee but two and, as we heard earlier, they will refer matters to each other, in a description that reminded me very much of a passage from “Yes Minister”. Ministers sometimes, when they occupy two briefs, as I once did, are encouraged to write letters to themselves in their dual positions. Now we have two animal committees that will be encouraged to refer matters to each other. This is an overcorrection because of a promise made earlier.
The suggestion of my noble friend Lord Moylan that, at the very least, we should ensure that the advice that the committee gives is grounded in the soundest possible science and is peer reviewed seems eminently sensible. I also join his modest suggestion that this might be the exception and the one proposal that the Minister might entertain.
My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Moylan’s amendment. Why do we have delegated committees? Why do parliamentary bodies contract out part of their function? The only answer, it seems to me, is that you need very specific accumulated scientific expertise—in the field of economics, or whatever—that you would not reasonably have from a legislative Chamber.
When I made the point on an earlier amendment that there is no such thing as a disinterested expert—we all have our prejudices and opinions and scientists are still human beings—the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, said that I was Luddite or, worse, “Goveian” in my attack on all experts. But this is surely having it both ways. We cannot say, “We must have this outside committee but there is absolutely no reason for them to base their recommendations on reputable science”. If we are not prepared to require the experts to rule on the basis of where the expertise is, on what possible basis are we creating this committee at all?
I bring your Lordships back to the amendments, which are on peer review and publication, but I say one thing to the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, who entertained us wonderfully with his stories of crocodiles. Why does he think that the Government—his Government—would use “ropey advice”, as he put it, to make decisions? I find that a quite extraordinary claim, particularly given the recent report on cephalopods and decapod crustaceans, which is the basis of a debate we shall be coming to shortly, which was done by the London School of Economics. I certainly would not classify the LSE as “ropey”. So why does he think that there is evidence of “ropey” scientific evidence being used by the Government in this Bill?
There is a certain amount in this that is very similar to Amendment 18, tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, on publication. As I said on his amendment, it concerns me that, once we start asking for everything to be published, particularly in an academic journal following peer review, we are adding a lot of time and delay to the committee’s work. Policy scrutiny reports differ in purpose, content and form from academic journal articles. The scientific evidence requirement for publication could limit the committee’s work to areas where a body of research already exists. Such research will not be in place for every policy that would impact the welfare of animals as sentient beings. In fact, I see part of the committee’s value as its ability to examine questions that have not been considered before.
The Council on Animal Affairs—a precedent body in the Netherlands, similar to the ASC being set up here —has produced some useful reports for its Government, considering new questions around policy and digitalisation in farming and biotechnology in the zoo sector. Both are areas where prior research material was very limited. The ASC should have a similar freedom to apply its core welfare question to policies where its considerations could add value, including areas not previously covered in detail by the scientific community. Again, it is important to stress that the role of the ASC is not to make detailed policy proposals but to draw attention to areas where the Government may wish to develop them.
My Lords, it has been a fascinating debate. I do not want to detain the House, but I was very entertained by my noble friend Lord Moylan’s trips down the gradations of sentience that might exist across the animal kingdom. I was trying to work out whether he was a follower of Aristotle—who believed that animals lacked rational souls and therefore were outside the sphere of justice—or whether he was Descartian or Rousseauan in his view. I do not want to go into a philosophical—
It may help my noble friend—seeing as he was so kind as to ask the question, I am sure he will be interested in the answer—to know that I stand on every occasion with Aristotle on this, as on so many other matters. I just want that to be clear.
That is good to know. I am very grateful. However, I differ from him entirely if he thinks—which I do not think he really does—that the Government, of whom I am proud to be part, would engage with any form of ropey bunch of scientists. In fact we will come on to talk about, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, said, the degree of scientific breadth that went into the 300 different pieces of work studied by the London School of Economics in its reports on decapods and cephalopods. It is an indication of the expertise that exists out there.
I think my noble friend Lord Hannan has the advantage on me in that he believes that legislators do not need experts. I may have misunderstood him, but as I gaze around this Chamber I see precious few scientists, with one notable exception. There may be more—of course, there is the noble Lord, Lord Trees.
No, I do not include the noble Lord, Lord Robathan. Both Houses lack the kind of expert rigour that we need in decision-making. I thank my noble friend Lord Moylan for his Amendments 23 and 35 concerning the academic rigour of the committee. We will ensure that the animal sentience committee is comprised of members with the right expertise. They will be best placed to decide what the committee’s priorities should be and, in doing so, they can consult others. I reassure my noble friend that the annual work plan of the committee will be made publicly available. This will ensure that its priorities and approach are fully transparent. As the draft terms of reference for the committee show, we fully intend to appoint members through a rigorous procedure of fair and open competition.
Of course, peer-reviewed evidence from academic journals has a role in informing the committee’s work. However, I do not believe it is necessary for the committee’s reports themselves to be published in academic journals. It is critical that the committee should be able to advise in a timely way—this is the key point—on policies that are being developed. To require the committee’s recommendations to undergo the full academic peer-review process would cause considerable delays in enabling Parliament to hold government to account. This amendment would severely compromise its role. I hope with those few words I have reassured my noble friend, and he will be content to withdraw his amendment.
Before my noble friend sits down, although he says he does not want the committee’s work to be peer-reviewed, does he still abide by what he said in Hansard on
“It is right to use science as the absolute arbiter in this.”—[Official Report, 25/5/21; col. 891.]
Is science going to be the absolute arbiter for this committee?
I hope I can reassure my noble friend that science and good scientific evidence is at the heart of decision-making and that is why we need the right advice for Ministers—so, yes. However, his experience and mine will have been that one can get conflicting scientific advice, so one needs to choose scientific experts with care and make sure that they give clear, unbiased opinions to Ministers and that their information can make better policy. Therefore, scientific evidence will be at the heart of this and we will follow it in the selection of committee members.
Before my noble friend sits down, does he think that Mrs Carrie Johnson has the expertise and rigour to be on the animal sentience committee?
I will make sure that every single person who applies for the committee has the necessary expertise, whatever background they come from. We will be looking for a range of people, from those with agricultural experience, those with experience of animals at the end of life in the slaughter process, and veterinarians. I made a list earlier; I will not repeat it because there were some long words which I cannot remember, but they will undoubtedly be a factor in deciding who will be members of the committee.
My Lords, it is a great disappointment that my noble friend has not conceded the very sensible proposal I made. It was unsurprising, however. What did surprise me were the remarks from the Opposition Dispatch Box. A more thorough-going endorsement of government policy better presented it is rare to imagine coming across. The idea that the Government never take scientific advice that needs to be checked or disputed and that they would never take dodgy scientific advice, now endorsed by the Labour Front Bench, is one I will cherish and store up for reference, no doubt, on some future occasion. However, for the moment, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 23 withdrawn.
Amendments 24 to 26 not moved.