Clause 3 - Response to reports

Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:15 pm on 10 February 2022.

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Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 12:15, 10 February 2022

I beg to move amendment 3, in clause 3, page 2, line 27, at end insert—

“(4) A Minister of the Crown must make a motion in each House of Parliament in relation to each response to a report from the Animal Sentience Committee laid before Parliament under paragraph (1).”.

This amendment would require the Minister to give an oral response to Animal Sentience Committee reports, creating an opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny of report recommendations and the Government’s response.

Clause 3 requires the Secretary of State to lay a response to reports produced by the Animal Sentience Committee before Parliament within three months of a report’s publication, as the Minister has outlined. We absolutely accept that it is right that the Secretary of State should be tasked with that responsibility. The reports will consider, as laid out in clause 2(2),

“whether, or to what extent, the government is having, or has had, all due regard to the ways in which the policy might have an adverse effect”— despite our attempts—

“on the welfare of animals as sentient beings.”

The committee may, therefore, criticise the Government’s policy-making processes. I noticed that the Minister acknowledged the possibility that the Government could be criticised in some circumstances, and I welcome that possibility. The committee could applaud the Government, or provide recommendations for improvements.

It is right that the Secretary of State responds to the findings. Where shortcomings have been identified, the Government absolutely should explain what went wrong; where there are recommendations, the Government must inform the House of their response. However, those of us who have been here a little while know how the House works. There are many opportunities for things to be made not exactly immediately obvious to the wider world, or even to Members of the House.

I have not been in Parliament that long, but I remember consideration of the Agriculture Bill. There was a lengthy discussion on the food security report. The matter went to the House of Lords. There was an argument about when the report should be produced—every three years, or annually, or every five years, and all the rest of it. Lo and behold, the Government produced that report on the very last day that they were permitted to do so, just before Christmas—as Governments do, of course—when people were rushing to get their planes and trains. It was a massive report of 300 pages, and obviously there was little opportunity just before Christmas for the wider world to consider it properly. What were the opportunities to consider that report? We found that it took a Westminster Hall debate, with a Minister reluctantly responding to criticisms at the end of the debate. The fact that the Secretary of State said one thing on one occasion and the Minister, when challenged, said something else, shows that there was not really any great opportunity for scrutiny.

This is a governance question. We know that, in the real world, a lot of this does not work. Given that some of the responses will be written, we know that there will not be much opportunity for scrutiny. We in the Opposition think that animal welfare and the humane treatment of animals is too important to fall into that trap and we think that, without an opportunity for the House to properly scrutinise and discuss reports, the Committee’s findings will simply not be given the attention they merit.

The amendment would require a Minister to make a motion in both Houses of Parliament, which would provide a genuine opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny. For the committee to have any heft, the Government cannot simply disregard its reports if they are politically or otherwise inconvenient. We think that it is right that “all due regard” be given to a range of factors and that the Government must explain how they have weighed up the competing demands.

We fully acknowledge that there are competing demands. This is not simple stuff. We also absolutely accept that the Bill does not change any existing legislation; it simply specifies that the Government must give “all due regard” to the ways in which policy may impact the welfare of animals. What we have heard from the discussions in the other place, and on Second Reading, is that that is open to a considerable amount of interpretation. It is right that both Houses debate and discuss the extent to which they believe “all due regard” has been met. I would think the Government would welcome the amendment, since it would actually give them further opportunity on their media grid to drip out some good news stories about the wonderful things they are doing. Actually, we think the opposite is the case. We do not think they want genuine scrutiny. The amendment could attract some interesting cross-party support as we goes forward.

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Labour, Easington 12:30, 10 February 2022

My hon. Friend is making an excellent point, Mr Walker. I believe, Sir Charles, that you were part of the Procedure Committee which created opportunities for Commons Select Committees to make statements and answer questions in the House, which is a welcome development. The amendment is sensible, as are all of the suggestions from the Opposition Front Bench. I hope the Minister will give it sympathetic consideration; I think there is a lot to commend it.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. By definition, all Opposition Front-Bench amendments are sensible—I will tell you the ones that are not later. My hon. Friend, too, brings great experience on this, and he makes an important point. Those of us who have gradually begun to understand parliamentary procedure over the process of being here know that he is right; proper consideration of Select Committee reports in the Chamber does make a real difference. That is what we are trying to get at with the amendment.

I hope, despite the nature of this debate, that Ministers will go away and think about this point. We have noticed that there are very real differences of opinion on the Conservative Benches on this issue. I think the amendment would give voice to some of the staunch critics of the Bill. I do not think some of them understand it entirely, but I think it might settle some of their concerns if they knew they had the opportunity to raise them in this way. As the Better Deal for Animals coalition said in their briefing to parliamentarians:

“Criticisms of the Bill during its passage to date appear to have been based on a misunderstanding of the role of the Animal Sentience Committee.”

Members will be surprised to hear that I am on the side of the Minister on this point, because I agree that it should be reiterated that the new Committee will not have the power to amend or bring about new legislation. It cannot compel the Government to take any particular course of action. I understand the points the Minister is making, and I am not sure that everyone who has taken part in this debate has fully appreciated that.

The amendment would provide an opportunity for Members of both Houses to provide input and scrutinise the Government’s success in weighing up competing demands and, crucially, their success in considering the sentience of animals. For the Bill to have any real impact, we believe that Members must have a proper opportunity to scrutinise the Government’s response to the Animal Sentience Committee’s reports. Going back to my opening points, this could so easily be just another committee. Unless it has power, it will not work, and that would mean that sentience had not been carried across in the way that many people believed it to have been.

The amendment would only strengthen and further the claimed aims of the Bill. If the Government oppose it, I have to say that they will reveal their true intent.

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

I thank the hon. Member for Cambridge for raising the matter of responses to the Animal Sentience Committee report with the amendment. I agree that the committee’s report warrants parliamentary attention. That is why Ministers will be required to lay a written response before Parliament within three months of a report’s publication. This is central to the targeted, timely and proportionate mechanism we are seeking to establish. However, the hon. Member will not be surprised to hear that I do not believe it would be proportionate to clog up the parliamentary timetable with an automatic debate on every single report.

Hon. Members and noble Lords in the other place should decide for themselves the extent to which each report needs more discussion. They will have the usual means at their disposal to bring in Ministers to answer questions: parliamentary questions, Select Committee hearings, Westminster Hall debates and business questions. The EFRA Committee, when looking at this particular subject, asked my noble Friend Lord Benyon to come in front of it, in order to probe him more. We should also allow for the possibility that the committee, in some of its reports, may be satisfied that the Department in question has had all due regard to animal welfare and as such makes no recommendations. I am sure that Ministers would be delighted, as the hon. Member for Cambridge slightly alluded to, to have the platform to speak about such success on the Floor of the House, but I gently say that that is not the best use of parliamentary time.

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

That was pretty much the answer I expected, but I gently observe that, in a couple of years’ time, when the position is reversed, I suspect the Minister might not think that it clogs up the parliamentary timetable to challenge the Government.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division number 4 Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill [Lords] — Clause 3 - Response to reports

Aye: 5 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 9.

Question accordingly negatived.

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

The clause requires a Minister whose Department has been subject to an Animal Sentience Committee report to lay a written report before Parliament. The response must be submitted within three months of the publication of the report, excluding periods in which Parliament is not sitting. This will give weight to the committee reports. Ministers will not be able to ignore them. There may be occasions when Ministers do not agree with the findings and recommendations of the committee. The clause gives those Ministers the opportunity to explain their views and the reasons therein. If Members or peers are dissatisfied with the Minister’s explanation, they have the usual means at their disposal to pursue their concerns, as we discussed.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

I have a genuine question about the timing of introducing legislation. I think we all know that the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 was rushed in and is imperfect. There is obviously much to be said for taking time and seeking advice. I am concerned that the Government will propose something, then the committee has to look at it, then the Secretary of State has three months to reply. If the Government were seeking to legislate or change policy quite quickly, could this mechanism be used to drag things out far longer than they should be?

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

I would say no. The formulation and thought process of legislation feels like it takes considerable time, as we all know. This mechanism would not, in any circumstance I can envisage, be used to slow down the passage of anything.

Crucially, the committee supports Parliament’s scrutiny of Ministers without creating an undue risk of legal challenge. We learned from the EFRA Committee’s valuable feedback on the earlier version of the Bill how this is the case. Our approach means that Ministers will be accountable to Parliament, as is right and proper, and not to the courts. We feel that this creates a balanced, timely, proportionate accountability mechanism, allowing Ministers to make their own judgments on the best policy decisions to take and giving Parliament the opportunity to scrutinise those issues based on expert advice that comes forward, hence the reason for the committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 3 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.