Clause 1 - Animal Sentience Committee

Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:30 am on 10 February 2022.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. The clause requires the Government to create and maintain the Animal Sentience Committee. The committee will be at the core of the Bill’s targeted, proportionate and timely mechanism for holding the Government to account on the consideration of animal welfare.

On Second Reading, it was asked why the committee needs to be established in legislation and why the Animal Welfare Committee could not fulfil the function outlined in the Bill. The fundamental purpose of the Animal Sentience Committee is to support Parliament’s scrutiny of the Government’s policy decision-making process. The committee is not there to advise or make decisions for Ministers. Instead, it will perform a valuable role in encouraging us to make sure we have properly considered the effect of policy on the welfare of animals. Creating the committee and placing it on a statutory footing is the best way of ensuring that the Bill’s recognition of animal sentience is given meaningful but proportionate effect.

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Labour, Easington

I think the Committee is at one in wanting to ensure that we have adequate protections for animals. That has been supported in the petitions and the written evidence. Will the Minister clarify one point on human-relevant science? I am involved with the all-party parliamentary group on human-relevant science, which was established to ensure that alternatives are provided to testing on live animals, particularly in vitro, using cell cultures and so on. Does that fall within the purview of the Bill?

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The point of the new committee is not to make value judgments. It is to scrutinise legislation to ensure that all due regard is taken of the welfare of animals. Such decisions are for the committee to determine, supported by the secretariat.

Creating the committee on a statutory footing will mean that it must act within the legal parameters set by the Bill. The Bill is clear that the committee has no power to make value judgments—these decisions are for Ministers. At the same time, the obligation placed on Ministers to respond to the committee’s report is essential for transparency and for the scrutiny of the Government’s policy decision making. Ministers do not have to accept the committee’s findings and recommendations, but they have an obligation under the Bill to respond to them promptly and openly.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

The written evidence submitted by the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation asks about membership of the committee and notes

“the importance of using a wide range of leading animal sentience experts”.

It also wants affiliations to, and past involvement with, non-governmental organisations to be made transparent, and states that previous involvement with NGOs should not be a barrier to membership. Does the Minister accept all the recommendations from the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation?

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I refer the hon. Lady to the terms of reference, which lay out that the Secretary of State will request that those who are on the committee will be from a broad spectrum. We will ensure that we have the chance to make use of the best expertise in order to advise Ministers, but we will not be overly prescriptive. However, the final arbiter of that will be the Secretary of State.

It is not possible to impose an obligation on Ministers without first establishing a committee in statute. A legislative basis for the committee will therefore help to ensure it is effective while ensuring that it is tightly defined. As outlined on pages 5 and 19 to 21 in the terms of reference, we want the Animal Sentience Committee to have a constructive relationship with the Animal Welfare Committee, while recognising that they have different functions: the Animal Welfare Committee will sit in an advisory capacity, while the Animal Sentience Committee will sit in a scrutinising capacity. It is important to remember that the two committees have very distinct roles.

Photo of Nickie Aiken Nickie Aiken Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

I welcome the Bill and am very proud to be sitting on this Public Bill Committee. The Bill is proportionate, timely and targeted. It is important, because the public believe passionately in animal welfare. Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that their justified outpouring of revulsion at the recent video of the West Ham footballer Kurt Zouma suggests that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals should consider inviting him to animal welfare training in order to prove animal sentience?

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, and I join her in being appalled at what we have seen. I agree that the public care greatly about animal welfare, but the Bill is science led and we are looking at the evidence base. It is for other bodies to choose the direction in which they might take restorative action so that people can learn and be called to account for their behaviour.

The Animal Welfare Committee is a well-respected source of advice on animal welfare issues, but it is not designed to assess policy. Allowing committees to specialise in their separate functions, and ensuring that those who sit on them have the expertise, is the best way to ensure that the objectives are delivered well. I urge that clause 1 stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (COP26)

Thank you, Sir Charles. I appreciate your calling me this early in the debate.

I will just say a few words, because clearly the Bill applies only to England. We have our own measures, as animal welfare is devolved to Scotland, but it might be useful for colleagues to hear a little more about the work of the Scottish Animal Welfare Commission, on which the English committee is partly modelled. The Scottish Government often act on the scientific and ethical advice provided by the commission, which was established in 2020. Sensible and pragmatic solutions to policy issues, such as beaver reintroduction and management of deer, have been taken forward following the commission’s advice. The commission has welcomed and contributed to legislation on penalties for animal welfare offences and the licensing of activities involving animals, and a review of the trade and importation of exotic pets is also under way. If England’s Animal Sentience Committee is to be similarly effective, there should be mechanisms to ensure that its scrutiny of policy-making processes is taken seriously by the Government.

The Secretary of State was keen to stress that the committee’s reports will not bind the Government to any particular course of action—we have heard the same from the Minister today—and that Ministers will be free to determine the right balance between animal welfare and other considerations. While it could be argued that that is appropriate and, perhaps, understandable, it is important that Ministers fully engage with the committee’s assessments, as the Scottish Government have done by incorporating many of SAWC’s recommendations into legislation.

I would like to highlight the Scottish Government’s plans, following SAWC’s recommendations, to introduce legislation to end the harmful practice of setting glue traps—a particularly revolting form of animal abuse. The Scottish Government intend to ban the sale and use of glue traps. However, implications arising from the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 present an obstacle, despite animal welfare being a devolved area.

The UK Government have backed the Glue Traps (Offences) Bill, which would ban the use of glue traps by the public in England, except by licensed professionals. However, some stakeholders remain concerned that the licensing regime is too weak and would allow continued liberal use of glue traps. The new market access regime whereby goods sold in one part of the UK—

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee

Order. This is really straying outside the scope of the Bill.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee

You are, but as Chair of the Committee I must say that it has to be relevant to this Bill. We are not here to talk about a market access Bill. We are talking about the Bill in front of us.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (COP26)

Okay, Sir Charles. Further to that, the Scottish Government hope to work through those issues, but it demonstrates how that Act can undermine devolution.

In closing, I commend those who have written in with their views, raising distressing issues such as puppy farming and unregulated microchipping and very sad cases of animal abuse. We hope that the Bill will go some way to address those issues. I also commend submissions from organisations such as the RSPCA, which, in particular, impressed me as adopting a very measured but rigorous approach to the Bill.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles, and to be able to address the issues in the Bill. I have to say, we have already strayed on to other areas. As I walked into the Committee Room this morning, I saw that the notice on the door has the wrong wording, which rather sums up this Government’s muddled approach to animal welfare. Many people get confused by the various pieces of legislation, with Friday mornings spent discussing each other’s pet animals and so on.

My concern about clause 1 relates to exactly what it says: it sets up a committee. It does not enshrine sentience in law. That is the key point. The Government had the opportunity to put sentience into law when my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East and other Members across the House tabled a very sensible amendment to the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. I hope that the Minister will address that. The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster briefly referenced that poor cat. I am not sure what the status of sentience is in our law at the moment. Perhaps the Minister could address that. The hiatus over the past two years has left us in a curious position.

In the sense that it is better than nothing, we welcome the Bill. However, it is pretty close to nothing. As the Minister said, the committee has no power to make value judgments. She might as well have paused in the middle of that sentence—the committee has no power. It is a talking shop.

We will support the Bill in so far as it goes. However, let us be clear: it is a complete betrayal of the Conservatives’ promise to pursue animal welfare issues. We do it; they talk about it.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee

Before I call the Minister to respond, Ms McCarthy has caught my eye.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

I totally agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge on the Front Bench. Caroline Lucas tabled that amendment, which I seconded, to the European Union (Withdrawal) Act. I lose track of what year it was, but I think it was late 2018. We have been doing this an awful long time.

We have discussed this on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. I also proposed a ten-minute rule Bill. David Rutley, who was on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs team at the time, told me that the Department wanted to legislate but that it was just looking for the right legislative vehicle. That is why I came up with my ten-minute rule Bill: “Here you are, you just need to back this.”

It was disappointing that the first three Government Back Benchers to speak on Second Reading of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill were very much against it and the doors it might open. Let us be frank: that was because they fear a cracking down on blood sports and hunting and shooting. That is why we do not have a comprehensive animal welfare Bill, and that is why we have all these little bits of legislation that are doing the rounds at the moment. The Government do not want scope to bring one in. That is what setting up a committee with limited powers is about. If we did truly recognise sentience in law, we would be questioning driven grouse shooting and all the loopholes allowing foxhunting to proceed. The Bill is a paper exercise that will do little to improve animal welfare.

Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 11:45, 10 February 2022

To respond to the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith, it is important that Ministers take the report seriously. That is why this small Bill places on us a duty to report formally. There is a time limit for reporting formally. The committee will have the freedom to choose how it looks at how Government policy affects animals, and that reporting mechanism is what the Bill is about. That is important.

The hon. Member for Cambridge also spoke. The EFRA Committee said that there was a need for us to carefully draft the Bill. It was formerly drafted in 2017. Judicially reviewing it across the piece would mean that the committee would no longer be able to perform its function, which is to give the Minister they need in order to make a judgment, while being cognisant of all the other things that Ministers have to take into account.

I am sure that we will come on to the definition of sentience when we debate amendment 6, tabled by the hon. Member for Bristol East. I gently say, however, that it is not necessary to define sentience in statute in order for the Bill to work. If we accept that animals are sentient, we also accept the principle, supported by the Bill, that their needs must be properly considered in Government decision making. Providing anything more complex than that would tie the hands of the committee and make it a paper exercise—which is not what it is—so there is little reason to do that. Keeping it in this more open form means that it can look across Government.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.