Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill [HL] - Report (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 9:52 pm on 6th December 2021.
The Earl of Caithness (Con):
Moved by The Earl of Caithness (Con)
28: Clause 2, page 1, line 20, at end insert—“(4A) Recommendations under subsection (3) must not be detrimental to—(a) nature conservation,(b) biosecurity,(c) crop protection, and(d) human health.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment is to ensure that the Committee take into account the consequences of their recommendations for nature conservation, biosecurity, crop protection and human health and thus to help HMG meet its ambitions of the Environment Act 2021 and Agriculture Act 2020.
My Lords, I beg to move Amendment 28 standing in my name. This is a similar amendment to the one I moved in Committee and it asks that any recommendation from the animal sentience committee is not detrimental to nature conservation, biosecurity, crop protection and human health.
As my noble friend on the Front Bench will know very well, our major concern is the unintended consequences of his project and what these could lead to. My concern is that there is huge potential for causing damage to nature conservation. We have just completed discussions on the Environment Bill, and much of what that seeks to achieve could be undermined by some of the decisions of the committee that are then translated into action by Ministers. It is the same for biosecurity, crop protection and human health. I refer to pests, in particular.
The reason that the committee could put undue influence on the Government is that Defra’s largest postbag in the last 15 to 20 years has been on animal welfare, and the Government regularly receive petitions on animal health and welfare issues. We even heard today that Her Majesty has received a petition signed by school children. It is also well known that public consultations consistently receive high response rates—for example, those on bovine TB and badger culling. It is for that reason—this intense emotional pressure—that I asked my noble friend the question about the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee in New Zealand, and whether he would follow its recommendation. He has not yet replied to me. I think he will shortly—at least, I hope he will—in which case he will set a precedent. I have been waiting three weeks for the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, to reply to some of my questions, and I have been waiting 10 days for the Secretary of State to reply to my questions. So Defra is not very high in my good books for replying to questions.
It is important that the committee should understand the difference between societal ethical values and public opinion; the two are very different. Backing public opinion could lead one to unscientific and wrong recommendations. My noble friend the Minister mentioned scientific evidence. As he rightly says, there will be contradictory scientific evidence; I hope that when the committee gets scientific evidence, all the contradictory scientific evidence will be clearly reported and not ignored.
I turn to the issue of biodiversity. It is good to see the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, in his place because there are important ways in which those who care for the countryside and look after it have to manage pest control. I want to ask my noble friend the Minister about this. He said in Committee on
“To be specific on whether the Bill will interfere with pest control, the answer is no. Pest control is highly regulated. Rules ensure that the trapping and killing of vermin is humane, using permitted methods.”—[Official Report, 20/7/21; col. GC 30.]
My noble friend is right to a point: pest control is regulated—but it is not checked. If he wanted to buy some serious rat poison he would have to produce a licence, as he knows. However, you can buy the same rat poison online without any identification or licence; so, there is legislation, but it is not controlled.
With the committee able to act with the remit that it will have, there is potential for more of this to happen. I ask my noble friend to consider fox snares, which are a widely misunderstood device; a fox snare is to tether the animal, not to strangulate it. The fox snares now being used are of the highest international standard, but the animal sentience committee may choose to engage only with stakeholders and the public rather than consult those who actually know about these things. Will fox snares be an issue that the animal sentience committee can look at? What about Larsen traps? They are permitted under Section 8(1) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act; they do not meet the criteria, but they are allowed under general licence. That is a perfect example of where the animal sentience committee could cause all sorts of problems. It is hugely important that Larsen traps are effective during the breeding season to keep corvid numbers under control.
I turn briefly to rats, mentioned by my noble friend Lord Hamilton earlier this afternoon. I just mentioned about being able to buy rat poison with a licence or online without a licence, but is it not highly hypocritical of us to treat rats, which will be classed as a sentient being, in a very different way to all other animals? Most people do not like rats; they turn a blind eye and do not understand that when you give a rat rat poison, it does not die on the spot but goes away and dies a slow, lingering death. We would not do this to any other animal. Will this be something that the animal sentience committee will be able to look at? If we are not able to poison rats, we will pose a huge difficulty with human health, as we have had in the past.
Another pest is the brown hare. It is a pest on arable land in the spring, but at other times of the year it is not a pest. But the hare is also a game species and it is also on the biodiversity action plan. My noble friend said that the animal sentience committee will be rigorous with its scientific analysis. However, Defra has not been rigorous in its scientific analysis, because it has included the hare in the action plan for a closed season, but there is no scientific evidence to justify that. If Defra does not use good science, as it is not using good science on issues of heather burning, then what confidence can we have that the animal sentience committee is going to use good science? Robust science is critical, and where there is not robust science, the animal sentience committee should be absolutely clear in stating this for us. I was not reassured by what my noble friend said in Committee, and I hope he will be able to reassure me later this evening.
I turn to Amendments 29 and 31, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch. The noble Lord is, unfortunately, stuck in Scotland and unable to get down tonight, and he has asked me to say a few words. Amendment 29 again shows the noble Lord’s concern for animal welfare. It is hugely important, when one is culling deer, that it is done as cleanly and effectively as possible. There has been a movement, which I have taken part in, to ban shooting game with lead shot, but I do not think there is yet scientific evidence that deer should not continue to be shot with a lead bullet—in fact, quite the reverse. Any non-lead bullet has been proven to be not as effective at killing deer and therefore potentially causes the animal more suffering.
Amendment 31 is about dog training collars. Again, this is an area that Defra wants to legislate on, but the scientific evidence does not stand up to scrutiny to support its position. A training collar is a very useful device for those who live in the country and for some who live in the town, where dogs are liable to run out into the road and not only do damage to themselves but potentially cause an accident. The amount of energy and shock that a dog might get—once it has gone through the beep and the vibration to come to the shock—is a very small shock that probably happens once in its lifetime, after which it knows full well that, when the beep happens, it has to change whatever it is doing and behave more rationally.
When we talk about electric shocks, we need to talk about electric fences, which are hugely important for protecting nesting birds from badger and fox predation. If any farmer or landowner had gone to the lengths that the RSPB has done in publishing a manual about electric fences, that farmer would have had his name splashed over every tabloid and been hounded out of his job. However, the RSPB produces a manual that says you should have electric fences. Not only must you have them, but for badgers you must cover the electric fence in cotton wool, soaked in honey to attract them. For foxes, you want to get the best fat you can from your roast beef and smear it on the electric fence at fox head height, which is a wonderful way to give the fox a very nasty shock.
Those electric fences are 2,000 times more powerful than any shock that a dog might have got from an electric collar. Has my noble friend been in contact with the RSPB? I understand that it has now withdrawn its manual, but I find it quite amusing that none of the tabloids has said anything about it recommending the use of electric fences and their potential hurt and damage to animals. With hedgehogs, it goes so far as to say the shock will kill them because they tend to roll up rather than run away, so they continue to get electrocuted. With the amount of power it recommends you put through an electric fence, you will do a huge amount of damage to wildlife. This is a charity really abusing its position.
There is a hugely serious point to having electric fences. The only way the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust farm in Scotland has been able to get any hatch of lapwing this year was by putting electric fences around the nests to keep the batch predation as small as possible. Even so, a great number of young chicks were lost to predators.
I hope my noble friend will do a lot more this evening to reassure me that pests and pest control will not be affected by this Bill. I beg to move.
My Lords, Amendment 45 in my name is in this group. I have listened to crocodiles and in the next group we will get crabs and lobsters, so I will introduce the fish. If the Minister thinks it right to put crabs and lobsters in the Bill, he might consider my amendment.
There is a very significant body of scientific evidence that fish feel pain and are sentient animals. Individuals are capable of experiencing pain and feeling emotions such as fear. Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, a fish may be a protected animal if it is under the control of man, but the Explanatory Notes on Section 59 read as follows:
“This section provides that anything which occurs in the normal course of fishing is not covered by this Act … The term ‘fishing’ should be understood as applying to ordinary activities of fishermen and anglers, and also the ordinary activities of those who own and run stocked ponds in allowing fishing activities to take place on their ponds.”
My amendment proposes that precisely the same provision be placed in this Act as was put in the Animal Welfare Act 2006. It would give reassurance to a great many people who enjoy fishing.
My Lords, I echo the point of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, about biosecurity. The implications of not taking care of biosecurity, which is mentioned in his amendment—I do not necessarily agree with all of the amendment—are fundamental; it is an ongoing threat to biodiversity and the ecological strength of this nation. I re-echo that point on biosecurity in terms of this Bill. As we know, at the moment we have few protections for biosecurity in our current arrangements, but, hopefully, that will change in the new year when there are greater controls on imports to this country. I just wanted to re-emphasise that point in the noble Earl’s amendment.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, for making that point, which is incredibly important, particularly to me, as someone who lives in Cumbria, where we have so many problems with tree diseases and are losing so many trees. It is pitiful watching some of the woods being taken down around places such as Ennerdale and Loweswater.
Coming back to Amendment 28 in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, he is right that we do need to look out for any unintended consequences of legislation. There are concerns that there may be an adverse impact on the environment. It is important that the Minister is able to reassure noble Lords that there will not be these outcomes from the Bill being enacted. This brings me back to the points we made earlier about how critical it is that the animal sentience committee has the right members who are highly qualified to advise the Secretary of State on these matters when any proposals are put forward.
Looking at Amendment 29, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, I say that it is not necessarily unfortunate to be stuck in Scotland at the moment; I might like to be joining him there. There was a debate on the Environment Bill about lead shot, and I will be interested to look at government progress on this.
The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, introduced Amendment 31 on electric dog training collars. These are opposed by the RSPCA, the Kennel Club, the Animal Behaviour and Training Council and the British Veterinary Association. I am aware that the Government have previously announced plans to look at banning shock collars on dogs, and on this side of the House we would support the Government if they wanted to go down that route.
The final amendment, Amendment 45, was introduced by my noble friend Lady Mallalieu. I thank her for it and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s responses to her concerns.
I am grateful to noble Lords for the opportunity to discuss and explain the interaction of the Bill, and the animal sentience committee, with important policy matters related to animal welfare.
Turning to Amendment 28, in the name of my noble friend Lord Caithness, I can only apologise to him that I do not have a response at present to his point on New Zealand. I want to make sure I get it right, because I do not want to be criticised on the Floor of the House for replying to him late or giving him the wrong answer to a question—but I will reply to him.
This amendment would require the animal sentience committee to ensure that its recommendations would not have a detrimental impact on certain other matters of public interest and great importance. I agree with my noble friend that these vital matters of public interest should be properly considered in all relevant government decisions. But the animal sentience committee is not a decision-making body, and the committee will not have the kind of expertise to evaluate these kinds of impacts. I do not think it would be fruitful to impose this requirement on the committee itself.
Ministers should consider the full range of relevant factors and arrive at a decision as to the appropriate balance between them, for which they are accountable to Parliament. I fear that this amendment would mean asking a committee, which is not accountable to Parliament in the same manner, to prejudge this balance.
We should also be careful to task the right experts with particular scrutiny and advisory functions. The right people to comment on a policy’s effect on human health, for example, are doctors and medical scientists, rather than animal welfare experts. I would not ask doctors to provide an expert opinion on animal welfare issues. Ultimately, we must allow specialist expert committees to focus on their own particular remit. For these reasons, I believe there are better means to ensure that the important matters my noble friend raises are given fair consideration in policy decision-making.
My noble friend cited the example of a Larsen trap; let us follow that through. Suppose the animal sentience committee was to look at the animal welfare effect of an animal being trapped, albeit for a relatively short period, in a live cage trap such as a Larsen trap. Undoubtedly, that is an experience that the bird would not enjoy, but the Minister, on making policy, might reflect that capturing that bird in one of the most effective and humane ways possible means that a vast range of other wildlife and biodiversity can survive. So, while the Minister will see the report, they will be able to take a wider view rather than looking just at the particulars of that issue.
My noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, are right to mention biosecurity. I live and breathe this, and there are diseases here, and coming our way, of trees and of animals that keep me awake at night. We want to avoid them coming here, and Defra and my team are absolutely committed to that. He is right that that is an area where a Minister will take a wider view. If it is in the interests of biosecurity or biodiversity to take a different view from the committee, he or she will be absolutely entitled to do that, and that will not be judicially reviewable as a result.
I turn to Amendment 29, which is in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, but was spoken to by my noble friend Lord Caithness. This amendment seeks to impose a requirement on the committee to produce a report on whether the welfare of deer is served by the use of lead or non-lead ammunition in hunting. It is important that the committee retains the ability and discretion to decide how best it can add value and discharge its role effectively. In our view, this calls for the committee to prioritise which policy decisions it decides to scrutinise. As we have made clear, we would expect the committee to be transparent about its prioritisation, and the expertise of the committee’s members will mean that the committee will be well placed to understand how they can fulfil their scrutiny role to meet the aims of the Bill. For this reason, I would not wish to impose a requirement on the committee to produce a particular report on a specific issue.
Additionally, the committee is there to report on how well the policy decision under consideration took account of the welfare needs of animals affected, rather than commenting on what the policy should be in light of all relevant matters. The noble Lord’s amendment would require the committee to venture into the business of the latter.
Turning to Amendment 31, which is also in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, Ministers should consider carefully how best to gather expert evidence and stakeholder views when making policy decisions. Indeed, the animal sentience committee will be established in order to help furnish accountability for properly considering the effects of policy decisions on animal welfare. As I have said before, the committee itself will not make decisions or recommendations about the substance of policy decisions themselves. The committee may only scrutinise and advise on how well individual policy decisions took account of the welfare needs of sentient animals. It will remain for Ministers to make policy decisions, having regard to all matters of public interest. Given that distinction, we do not consider it appropriate to require the committee to embark on consultation before issuing reports relating to particular policy decisions.
We believe that the committee should retain the ability and discretion to decide how best it can add value and discharge its role effectively. In our view, this calls for a prioritised approach by the committee when deciding which policy decisions to scrutinise. As we have made clear, we would expect the committee to be transparent about its prioritisation, and the expertise of the committee’s members will mean that the committee will be well placed to understand how they can fulfil their scrutiny role to meet the aims of the Bill.
Amendment 45 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, seeks to add to the Bill an exception for fishing. I can happily declare an interest as an avid angler. This is another good example of how the Bill might work. If the animal sentience committee were to take the decision to write a report on whether fishing caused pain to the animal, the Minister could then consider other, wider factors—for example, that it is the largest participation sport in the country, it has a significant effect on the rural economy and there is huge value in the work that fishing interests and riparian owners do for biodiversity in river environments. That is an example of where the balance of views will be taken into account.
The Bill recognises that animals with a backbone, including fish as well as decapods and cephalopods, are sentient. Recognising these animals as sentient in the Bill means that the animal sentience committee can consider how well individual central government policies have paid regard to the welfare of these creatures and can publish reports on this. Ministers will then be required to respond to Parliament on such reports published by the committee. That applies to all policy areas and has no exemptions.
As we have said, the Bill is all about providing assurance that central government policy-making is well grounded. The Bill does not change existing law and is not capable of imposing any new restrictions on individuals or businesses. More specifically, it does not change any current legal requirements on the fishing industry. I really hope, even at this late hour, that fishing interests may be watching or listening, or perhaps they will read the reports tomorrow, because I do not want to read any more headline articles saying that this legislation is about banning activities that, frankly, I feel passionate about protecting. It is about making sure that Ministers have better access to information on the policies they make, and that they are able to make it on the basis of wider considerations if they have to.
Defra will continue to work with stakeholders, including the seafood industry and any other fishing interests, whether inland or marine, to make improvements to animal welfare. I hope that I have been able to offer greater clarity and reassurance about the implications of the Bill and that my noble friend will be content to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part, particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, for coming in on biodiversity—I am glad he was in his place for this amendment—and to the Minister, who has gone further than he did in Committee.
As we know, the animal sentience committee has to consider whether an animal has been deprived of one or more of its five welfare needs as set out in the Animal Welfare Act 2006. One of those is the need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury or disease. That opens up a huge ambit for the committee. At the moment, we are extremely fortunate in having a Minister in Defra who understands the countryside, how it works and the need for balance. What many of us are concerned about, given the emotion and public opinion that some who are less concerned about that balance are able to generate, is that future Ministers who are not so attuned to the countryside and what happens there—I can think of quite a number in the past who were not—will not be as strong and forthcoming as my noble friend Lord Benyon. That is where we are concerned, and it is why we are trying to alter the Bill in some respects.
I have clearly failed to persuade my noble friend. He has the brief that I so often had, which at the top right-hand corner says “Resist”. His resistance is going to overcome my willingness to change, so I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 28 withdrawn.
Amendments 29 to 33 not moved.
Clause 3: Response to reports
Amendments 34 and 35 not moved.