“(1) The Secretary of State must prepare an Animal Sentience Strategy.
(2) The Strategy under paragraph (1) must set out how Her Majesty’s Government plans to have regard to animal sentience including plans to—
(a) respond to Animal Sentience Committee reports,
(b) require animal welfare impact assessments, and
(c) commission independent research.
(3) The Strategy must set out policies that the Secretary of State may ask the Animal Sentience Committee to review.
(4) The Secretary of State must publish an annual statement on progress on the Animal Sentience Strategy.
(5) An annual statement under subsection (4) must include a summary of changes in policy or implementation that have occurred in response to an Animal Sentience Committee report over the last 12 months.
(6) A Minister of the Crown must make a motion in each House of Parliament in relation to the annual statement.
(7) The Secretary of State must publish a revised Animal Sentience Strategy at the start of each parliament.”—
This new clause would place a duty on the Secretary of State to produce an animal sentience strategy, and to provide an annual update to Parliament on progress against it.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
The new clause is tabled in my name and those of many of my colleagues. In many ways, I will go back to where I started, by referring to the comments by my colleague in the other place, Baroness Hayman. She explained very lucidly that the Bill in its current form provides
“a weaker set of responsibilities” than provided for in EU law and
“effectively outsources the bulk of animal sentience responsibility to the committee, which can make recommendations to decision-makers but sits outside the decision-making process.”—[Official Report, House of Lords,
That is an important point, which we have already referenced, and I believe that it should be heard loud and clear—put up in lights, in fact. The Conservatives have weakened the law on animal sentience. [Interruption.] They may not like it, but it is the truth.
Now, there is a solution—there is salvation, and I am going to offer it. The amendment tabled by Labour in the other place goes some way towards rectifying that problem. Again, as Baroness Hayman explained,
“Article 13 imposed a direct legal obligation on the EU and its member states to pay full regard to animal sentience. It was a direct responsibility on decision-makers, in the form of government Ministers.”—[Official Report, House of Lords,
I have already described how the Bill is weakened by the requirement for the Secretary of State to provide written responses to Animal Sentience Committee reports rather than oral responses. The Government chose not to take that opportunity.
The Bill places indirect responsibilities on Ministers; they must simply establish and maintain a committee and lay written responses, rather than assuming direct responsibilities on these matters, which is what we would like to see. This is clearly an inadequate replacement for the duties and responsibilities enshrined in article 13 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union, and that is what we seek to address through the new clause.
The new clause would place a duty on the Secretary of State to produce an animal sentience strategy and to provide annual updates to Parliament on progress against it. It would significantly improve the Bill by increasing the heft given to the Animal Sentience Committee and ensuring that its work does not, as I fear it might, end up being merely symbolic.
If the Government cared as deeply about animal sentience as they claim, they would join us in setting out this fully formed strategy. Not only would a strategy provide guidance and direction for the Animal Sentience Committee, as my hon. and good Friend the Member for Bristol East suggests, but the committee would hold Ministers to account much more robustly than the Bill currently provides for. Under the current weak proposals, the Government “respond” to the committee’s reports, and in those responses, all they can do is express contentions or commitments to future policy formulation and implementation. As I have already spelled out, there is no mechanism for Parliament to hold the Government to account in this respect. Annual reporting on an overarching strategy, progress against which could be debated properly in Parliament, would at least provide for that.
As I mentioned, we are aware that some Government Members are critical of the Bill. I suspect that they were not invited by the Whips to join this Committee, but they are still out there. I hope that, on Report, they might notice and be attracted by some of our propositions. Annual reporting would provide opportunities for parliamentarians to evaluate the effectiveness and impact of the Animal Sentience Committee and to debate the issues more widely.
I think we can all agree that these are complicated and intricate matters; they are sensitive and important as well. We are talking about the ability to feel pain and pleasure, joy and sorrow. It is therefore of the utmost importance that the most up-to-date scientific findings are incorporated in the Government’s decisions. Much of the confusion could be avoided if the Government were able to commission more independent research in this area, and the new clause would strengthen that ability. I encourage Government Members to think seriously about supporting our amendment.
I say gently to the hon. Gentleman, whom I thank for proposing new clause 1, that while I agree that the Bill should be science-led, he will not be surprised that I disagree entirely that we are watering down anything. Given that we are robustly discussing animal sentience, how seriously the issue is taken in this place could not be plainer to the outside word.
I understand why the hon. Gentleman might want to require the Secretary of State to publish an animal sentience strategy and undertake the actions associated with it, but the Bill underpins the action plan for animal welfare published in May last year. Of course the Government want the new committee to perform its role to the best of its ability, and we will work with Members to ensure that it does just that, but the independence of that committee is vital. A strategy in which Ministers set out policies that they want the committee to consider would limit its ability to set its own agenda. It is vital to make sure that the committee is led by science and by experts, and that it has its own ability to define sentience, if it wishes to, and to set its own agenda.
The committee’s reports will be publicly available and will provide a record of policies that it has considered. As is usual, the committee will be subject to the Freedom of Information Act and the Public Records Act, as laid out in clause 4. Rather than prescribe a list of tasks for the committee, we want to ensure that it can shape its role in an independent manner, and that its influence in highlighting the impact on animal welfare of key policy decisions is maximised and determined by its own evaluation of where it could add value. DEFRA will support the committee in identifying such opportunities, but it is important that experts have that scope.
We do not propose to require Government Departments to produce animal welfare impact assessments, but my Department is committed to working with its counterparts across the Government to develop the right tools to assess the effect of policy decisions on animal welfare so that there is a cohesive look at that matter. Departments will have good reason to engage with the process as that will help to prevent the committee from producing negative reports, as well as aiding learning across the Government. The Bill as drafted, alongside the action plan for animal welfare, will achieve many of the intentions of the new clause while retaining the committee’s flexibility and discretion to focus on the areas that it deems most important.
I will respond briefly, as you would encourage me to do, Sir Charles.
I listened closely to the Minister’s response, and while I struggled with some of the civil service gobbledegook, I think she said that some of the things that we are looking to achieve will happen, which we welcome. In the end, however, I can come to no conclusion but that this is a weak proposition. I have asked the Minister three times why the Government did not choose to bring across the stronger version of the legislation—goodness me, they brought plenty of other legislation across—but that has not been explained, and there must be a reason. The Minister also has not been able to answer the question of where sentience currently stands, so the only conclusion we can come to is that the Bill needs to be beefed up and made much stronger. I can assure you, Sir Charles, that in a couple of years’ time, it will be.
I just want to tell new colleagues what the Clerk’s note reads: “At this point, Members may wish to raise bogus points of order or debate the Question in order to raise issues concerning proceedings of the Bill, to thank officials, etc. This is permissible within reason as long as the final Question on report is put and agreed to.”
I add my voice to that, but I would also like to thank my Bill team and members of my private office, who are nothing but always by my side, for which I thank them.
Many thanks to the Clerks and the Doorkeepers, and to Hansard for taking down our words today.
Thank you, Sir Charles; I am not going to miss this opportunity.
I echo the thanks that have been given, and I would also like to place on record our thanks to our staff. The Bill has been interestingly timetabled, and we have been working under pressure, so it has been useful to have our staff so on board. I also thank you, Sir Charles, for your excellent chairing.