Amendment to the Motion

Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill [HL] - Third Reading – in the House of Lords at 3:15 pm on 13th December 2021.

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Lord Herbert of South Downs:

Moved by Lord Herbert of South Downs

At the end insert “but that this House, while strongly supporting measures to improve animal welfare, regrets the way in which the proposed Animal Sentience Committee is to be established”.

Photo of Lord Herbert of South Downs Lord Herbert of South Downs Conservative

My Lords, I draw attention to my positions in the Countryside Alliance, including chairman, which I have declared in the register of Members’ interests. I regret detaining the House. I appreciate that there is important business next on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. However, as the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill leaves the House, I feel that there are important issues that need to be addressed. I would like to make two points at the outset.

First, none of what I am going to say is an attack on my noble friend the Minister. He is a good friend and a good man who has been given the impossible job of defending a Bill about which many of us have considerable reservations, and has done so with unfailing grace and humour. I am genuinely sorry to differ from him on this measure. Secondly, every one of us in this House wants to promote animal welfare. I certainly do. I feel strongly that animals must be treated properly but, whatever the good intentions of those promoting the Bill, I fear that it is not a wise measure as drafted. In fact, if we take a step back, it is actually an incredible measure. It seriously proposes that the effect of any government policy on the welfare of animals may be considered by an unfettered statutory committee and that Ministers must respond to that committee’s reports.

When the Bill started, that measure applied only to vertebrates; now it applies to cephalopod molluscs and decapod crustaceans. That was one of the few amendments made to the Bill, and that was by the Government. At the height of a pandemic which has killed thousands of people and cost our economy billions, we have decided to devote time to passing a law to ensure that no government policy can hurt the feelings of a prawn.

The Government rejected every other amendment put to them. We pointed out that sentience is not actually defined in the legislation; apparently that does not matter. What matters is that Ministers must have regard to sentience, even if we do not know what it actually is. We asked for safeguards to ensure the expertise of the committee’s members. We were told that such protections were not necessary. We asked for constraints to the committee’s scope. We were told that limits to the committee’s unfettered remit were not necessary either. Crucially, we asked why the balancing provisions in the Lisbon treaty, which specifically exempt religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage, were not included and why the Bill goes so much further than the EU measure it claims to replace. We were told that this balancing provision was not necessary either. In fact, apparently no change was necessary.

The Government have been able to ignore every concern expressed, largely on this side, by relying on the kindness of strangers—uncritical support for the measures that would have guaranteed the defeat of any amendment. I wonder whether the Government will come to regret that.

I am sure that Ministers do not intend that this new committee will get out of hand. I am sure they intend to appoint sensible people to it. I am sure they believe their own rhetoric when they say that Ministers decide so they will resist the committee’s recommendations if necessary. This is of little reassurance when the Government have already capitulated in the face of a social media campaign to introduce the committee in the first place. It is like saying, “Don’t worry, we are going to make sure the burglar won’t take anything from your house, but we are going to let him in to make helpful suggestions about your security”. This committee will set its own priorities. It will decide its own agenda. It will rove across government at will and demand answers to its recommendations. The Government may believe that they are answering public concern by setting up the committee in this way, but I fear they are making a massive rod for their own back.

This measure departs from the usual practice of taking careful and specific steps to ensure animal welfare by injecting a broad and ill-defined principle into our public administration. The danger is that, in doing so, it will effectively if unwittingly hand an institutional footing to the animal rights agenda. We are giving leverage and power to that single-issue ideology, which can be uncompromising and extreme, without thinking through the consequences.

We are trying to beat a mutating virus. We are trying to level up, to build back better. We need Government to take better decisions, and more quickly. We need to get things done faster, yet we are putting in place a barely constrained mechanism which is simply bound to glue up government. I am afraid that I differ from my noble friend on that. At best, even with sensible people in place, the committee will put spanners in the works because frankly that will be its job. It will make it harder for Ministers to deliver, to take difficult balancing decisions, which they sometimes must, or to ignore populist sentiment. At worst, without the necessary safeguards in place, the committee risks becoming a Trojan horse, used especially to attack wildlife management farming or the well-being and way of life of our rural communities. We know that this is a real risk because the animal rights agenda is in plain sight, and because its proponents are already incessantly abusing judicial review to force government to do its will.

It is usually this House which provides a robust check on measures propelled by populist wins, yet we have passed the Bill with no amendment, except to extend its scope to beasts such as cuttlefish. Some noble Lords may remember that, 30 years ago, it was only the sober intervention of this House which prevented the then Dangerous Dogs Bill from inadvertently making it a strict liability imprisonable offence for a dog to cause injury by accidentally knocking someone off their bicycle. That Bill had foolishly been driven through all its Commons stages in a single day, but today we are showing ourselves to be more inclined to bend without sufficient thought to populism, and now it will fall to Members of the House of Commons to address the deficiencies in this proposal.

We all want to advance animal welfare, but the sentience provisions in the Lisbon treaty had little or nothing to do with the succession of admirable legislation which for over a century has been passed by this Parliament. In fact, with Brexit, we have the freedom to pass laws to protect animals which would not have been possible before—to address puppy smuggling, for instance. Even before this sentience Bill has been passed, other government Bills to protect animals have been introduced or announced, which only goes to prove that this Bill, creating this committee in this way, is not necessarily to protect animals.

I have offered these remarks in the hope that even as the Bill leaves this House, there is still a chance that its serious deficiencies will be addressed and that we will return to focusing on specific workable measures to improve the welfare of animals in ways which we all want and can all support. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Robathan Lord Robathan Conservative

My Lords, I pay tribute to my noble friend the Minister who, with good humour throughout, has defended what is frankly almost indefensible. He has done extremely well, and I hope that he is congratulated by the higher ranks of the Government. I associate myself entirely with the excellent points made by my noble friend Lord Herbert. I will not repeat them, but I will repeat that this is a shockingly bad piece of legislation which should be an embarrassment to the Government.

Photo of Baroness Mallalieu Baroness Mallalieu Labour

My Lords, I remind the House of my interests as a member of the RSPCA and president of the Countryside Alliance and the Horse Trust. I too thank the Minister for his patience and courtesy during the passage of this Bill. Given the opposition from parts of the House, this cannot have been an unalloyed pleasure for him.

It gives me no pleasure to support the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Herbert, but I must. I cannot understand how a Government who were elected in no small part promising to reduce bureaucracy, especially that which came from Europe, can have taken the wholly uncontroversial subject of putting animal sentience on the statute book, something which nobody would disagree with, and now seem bent on turning it into a textbook bureaucratic nightmare.

When the former Master of the Rolls, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, told us during the passage of the Bill that it creates a magnet for judicial review; when the foremost vet in this House, the noble Lord, Lord Trees, who supports the Bill, tells us that its scope needs definition and its focus sharpened on to future policy decisions; when the former Leader of the House, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, the former leader of the party opposite, the noble Lord, Lord Howard, and many others, tell the Government that they need to think again, yet they resist and reject all amendments, save for a small number of government ones, it makes me wonder whether this House has actual value as a scrutinising House when they have the comfort of a large majority in another place and know that they are able to push defective Bills through almost unamended there.

The Bill stirs up trouble for the future, not just for this Government but for future Governments. I hope that those who come to consider it in another place will have more flexibility to knock it into shape, because it surely needs it.

Photo of Lord Mancroft Lord Mancroft Conservative 3:30 pm, 13th December 2021

I start by thanking my noble friend Lord Herbert for taking the trouble to move his amendment today and giving us an opportunity to say a few words in the dying moments of the Bill. I also apologise to your Lordships for my failure to move my amendments last week on Report. As my noble friend on the Front Bench said, I was knocked over by Covid, but whether I jumped up like Lazarus I am not entirely sure. I think the reason that I am back so rapidly is that my wife was sick of having me about the house, but I am awfully glad to be back in your Lordships’ House anyway.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, just said, this Bill introduces the concept of sentience into English law for the first time, despite the fact that it has been the basis for 150 years of very sound animal welfare legislation, so you might wonder why we need to put it on the statute book today. I suggest we probably do not. It also sets up a new animal welfare committee—the animal sentience committee—despite the fact that we have three very good committees looking at animal welfare at the moment, each of which could have fulfilled the tasks set for this committee, so you might wonder why we want this.

As the noble Baroness also said, this is a revising Chamber, except that the Government have chosen to ignore all the suggestions made by Members of this House on all sides, as she said: the noble Lord, Lord Trees, whose knowledge of veterinary science can hardly be equalled; the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, who I do not think is in her place today, but who put forward some very important points; and the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, herself, on the other side of the House, who made very reasoned amendments and suggestions to this House—as everybody did—none of which were politically based at all.

I have done as much research as I can, and I believe that this is the first statutory committee set up by statute which has no statutory terms of reference. The Government recognised this when it was raised in Committee, and so between Committee and Report they introduced 27 pages of terms of reference for the committee that they propose to set up. But they are not statutory; they can be altered by any official or Minister at the stroke of a pen. They have absolutely no basis in law; they are effectively legislatively worthless.

The Government have argued throughout that this is a minor measure of very little significance—in which case, why have your Lordships been bothered with it for four long, paralysingly boring days? I do not think it is a measure of little significance. Like my noble friend Lord Herbert, I think it is a potentially very dangerous measure that will come back to bite this Government—or, more particularly, future Governments—as the years go by. This House will regret the fact that we have passed it without any amendment and have allowed ourselves to be rolled over.

There is little support for this measure on the Government Benches. I have looked very carefully, but I have seen very little support for it on the Opposition Benches. In fact, I have seen very little support for it anywhere except on the Front Benches, where a rather unsavoury deal has been stitched up to allow this to go to the other place without a single amendment, despite the care and attention which your Lordships have given the Bill. It is the tradition in this House that we send Bills to the other place with good will; we wish them a fair wind. I do not wish this Bill a fair wind. I hope the other place does the duty that we should have done and changes it very considerably or, better still, destroys it completely. Failing that, I hope that a sensible Secretary of State in future fails to enact it.

Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative

My Lords, I, too, support what my noble friend Lord Herbert said. I underline a point made by my noble friend Lord Mancroft. This sets a parliamentary precedent in the appointment of statutory committees which could have huge ramifications for future Bills. The Government will be able to say that we do not need to set out the statutory terms of reference for the committee because we already have the precedent of this Bill.

I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Benyon has had to take this Bill through the House. It should have been another Minister. My noble friend was absolutely right when he said that he has had to drive it through the House. He has not looked right; he has not looked straight ahead. He has looked left. He rightly paid tribute to his co-driver, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock.

Finally, I am disappointed that I have not yet received a reply from my noble friend to the questions I posed on Report. I hope that he will expedite those.

Photo of Lord Etherton Lord Etherton Chair, Charities Bill [HL] Special Public Bill Committee, Chair, Charities Bill [HL] Special Public Bill Committee

My Lords, I, also, support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Herbert. Even at this late stage, it is worth emphasising that the absence of any restriction on the purview of the sentience committee will mean that no recreational activity, cultural tradition, regional heritage or religious rite—in its practice or observance—is safe from scrutiny by the committee.

In Committee, the Minister was good enough to give some reassurances about the long-standing practices of religious slaughter in this country going back hundreds of years. The trouble is that the only policy that has been disclosed means that it will be open to any future Secretary of State, Minister or future Government to take a different view. Unlike under the Lisbon treaty, there is absolutely nothing to restrain them from doing so.

As I said on Report, if the Government decided not to follow a recommendation from the sentience committee on contentious issues relating to animal welfare, it would inevitably give rise to the potential for judicial review and challenge. You cannot stop people bringing a judicial review. The Government may be confident that they would win, but these will not be straightforward matters. One will have to consider whether the sentience committee has acted within its statutory rights, whether or not the evidence sufficiently supports what the committee recommends and whether the Government have sufficient other factors which outweigh the recommendation of the committee. I agree that this Bill is going to come back to bite badly.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

My Lords, I will speak very briefly. I associate myself totally with the brilliantly moved amendment from my noble friend Lord Herbert of South Downs. He encapsulated the folly of this legislation, from which I have kept myself apart because I was, frankly, so appalled to think that a Conservative Government could introduce such a piece of legislation.

My noble friend Lord Herbert was exactly right in all he said, as was my noble friend Lord Mancroft. It is a joy to see him back. I hope that he has made a full recovery. These are people who know about the countryside. Nobody could have put it better than my noble friend Lord Herbert when he asked why Parliament was consuming itself with consideration for the welfare of the prawn when, all around, people are in danger from a deadly virus. It shows a completely warped sense of perspective and priority of which I feel deeply ashamed. If my noble friend presses his amendment to the vote—which I hope he will—he will have my unreserved support.

Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated

My Lords, I also associate myself with and will support the regret amendment. I have not been able to be at the discussions on the Bill, but I followed them very closely in Hansard because it is an issue I am interested in. There is one point to note: the noble Lord, Lord Herbert of South Downs, made a brief reference to populism. I want to speak on behalf of the public, who might well support animal welfare, but I can tell you that if you talk to anybody outside this House and tell them what the Bill contains, they are equally appalled. The irony is that it is not fair for anyone to try to say that, as a consequence, the public might somehow get the blame for this badly formed, badly written, badly drafted, philosophically ridiculous and anti-human Bill. I do not think that is fair. Although I am sure all of us are concerned with animal welfare, the Bill is not about preserving the welfare of animals. It actually takes us into very dark, deep territory, and a bureaucratic nightmare. It is completely anti-democratic and the public would be appalled if they read the debates in Hansard in great detail.

Photo of Lord Hannan of Kingsclere Lord Hannan of Kingsclere Conservative

My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Herbert of South Downs and my noble and indestructible friend Lord Mancroft. I asked at Second Reading: to what problem is this legislation a solution? I listened carefully through Committee and Report and I did not get an answer. I am afraid that I am reluctantly thrown back to the conclusion that this was a Bill brought forward in response to a fake press release—that, at the Dispatch Box in another place, the Minister was panicked into promising legislation in response to a false story to the effect that Conservatives had voted to say that animals were not sentient. Declamatory law of this kind invites unintended consequences. It is almost a textbook definition of how not to legislate. It does not reflect well on our lawmaking process that this House has been prevented from exerting its ameliorating and scrutinising function. I hope that that function will be taken up in another place.

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

My Lords, I listened carefully to the noble Lord, Lord Herbert of South Downs. I fear I do not agree that this Bill was a waste of parliamentary time. A large number of Bills are coming forward during the pandemic that are not health related, but it is important that legislation moves forward and does not get bogged down in Covid. Similarly, I listened to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Hannan of Kingsclere, who, unfortunately, was not able to be here at the beginning of the debate. I live in a rural community and support the rural way of life, and I do not feel the Bill threatens either the ethos or the practical way of life in rural communities. This is overstated.

I congratulate the Minister on his remarks and on eventually getting this very short but important Bill to the point of being able to pass it on to the other place. I did not envisage at the start of the process that it would be so controversial in some quarters of the Government Benches, who, in their own words, have attempted to paralyse the House with boredom.

I thank the Minister for his time and that of his officials in providing briefings along the way, and for his patience in dealing with the many amendments and queries that came forward. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, for her time and assistance in helping to steer the Bill forward. It is always better when Front Benches are united in moving a Bill forward.

The amendments that have been accepted have improved the Bill. It will be interesting to see how the Bill is received in the other place and whether it will make any further amendments. No doubt it will be heavily lobbied by the spokespeople this afternoon. I support the thrust of the Bill and look forward to working with the Minister on future legislation.

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, on these Benches we have listened to the speeches from the noble Lord, Lord Herbert of South Downs, and other noble Lords, but we cannot support the amendment. I am sure noble Lords are not surprised to hear that. I will not go into any details. At Second Reading, in Committee and on Report, we discussed in depth and at length exactly the same issues as we have today, and I am fairly confident that any noble Lord present at any of those debates understands fully my feelings on these issues.

The vast majority of Labour Back-Benchers support the Bill. There is no Front-Bench stitch-up, but it is good when Front Benches can work together to get what I consider to be good legislation through the House. Members may disagree with me, but that is my opinion.

On that note, I thank the Minister for his support in understanding the Bill, listening to opposition concerns at the early stages and bringing forward the terms of reference, for example, and other amendments that have made the Bill much better—including the amendment on decapods and cephalopods that I first put forward in Committee. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville. As I said, and as she said, it is important that we can all work together across the House to make a Bill better.

I will not say anything further; it is going to be a very busy day today. I thank the officials for all their time. We support the Bill and believe it is better than when it first arrived in this House. I wish it much luck in the other place.

Photo of Lord Benyon Lord Benyon The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 3:45 pm, 13th December 2021

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Herbert for his contributions to today’s proceedings and earlier debates on the Bill. I have previously addressed at length a number of the points he raised, so I do not intend to detain the House long. He made an incredibly good speech, and some of his points struck home—I felt a bit like that painting of St Sebastian.

The weakest argument he put, echoed by my noble friend Lord Cormack, seemed to suggest that this House cannot hold two thoughts in its head at the same time. Of course, the priority of this House, the Government and all of us is to deal with the pandemic, but the idea that you cannot produce legislation on any other subject, which is the logical conclusion of his argument, is one that I am afraid I do not agree with. But he made other very good points.

I suggest to the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, that this concept of animal sentience was on the statute book; we had it under Article 13 of the Lisbon treaty. The debate, which will continue in another place, is about the degree to which we transpose that. I understand the points she made.

I make an absolute assurance to the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, who is not here. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, made a very good point, and I respect him and his knowledge. On the point about judicial review, we have done all we can to limit the duties that a Minister has to abide by. That is where judicial review really hurts Ministers—if they fail to follow a duty in the Bill—but I absolutely concede that organisations will continuously try to judicially review the Government, on this legislation and elsewhere. The question is: will it be successful? Will it be permitted to be taken forward? Just the week before last, an organisation wanted to take the Government to judicial review and was refused by the courts.

Finally, on religious rites, I made a promise on Report and continue to make that point. The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, and others made genuine points about concerns in the communities they come from or sought to represent in their words on this Bill. I and the Government take these concerns really seriously and want to give them every assurance that the Government’s policy remains to support them on these matters of religious importance and on how they wish to have animals slaughtered. We will make officials and Ministers available to give those added reassurances.

I again thank all those involved to date in the Bill’s passage and hope my noble friend will be persuaded not to push his amendment.

Photo of Lord Herbert of South Downs Lord Herbert of South Downs Conservative

My Lords, this has been a good airing of the issues; we have all said our piece. I have no wish to try the patience of the House, which wishes to get on to other matters, any longer. I hope that Members of Parliament will heed what has been said, and that in due course we will have an opportunity to consider amendments that they make, so that this House performs the job of being a revising Chamber—because the Bill has not so far been revised at all. With that, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment to the Motion withdrawn.

Bill passed and sent to the Commons.