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Sentience and Welfare of Animals — [Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 16th March 2020.

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Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East 4:30 pm, 16th March 2020

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered e-petition 242239 relating to the sentience and welfare of animals.

It is a genuine pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Roger, because I know how committed you have been to animal welfare over many years in Parliament. I am sure that if you were not in the Chair, you would be speaking in favour of the petition—I hope that is not slightly presumptuous of me.

There is widespread support for introducing the recognition of animal sentience, as enshrined in article 13 of the Lisbon treaty, into UK law. Nearly 104,000 people signed the petition that led to this debate, and 43 organisations are backing the Better Deal for Animals campaign. I have only just joined the Petitions Committee, and this is the first petition I am speaking in favour of, but it is a real privilege to be able to debate it because we have been pushing for it for such a long time. I have taken part in Petitions Committee debates as a Back Bencher and been slightly frustrated that the person moving the petition has not been fully on board with the sentiments behind it, but I can assure the petitioners that I very much agree with what the petition asks for.

I will explain later why the sentiment behind the petition is so important, but I want to retrace the journey that has led us to today’s debate. Back in November 2017—well over two years ago—I added my name to a new clause to the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill that was tabled by Caroline Lucas. New clause 30 called for the EU protocol on animal sentience, as set out in the Lisbon treaty, to be recognised in domestic law post Brexit. For some reason, the Government did not want to accept new clause 30; various reasons were given at the time.

However, in the face of a mass email campaign from the public—those of us who were Members back then will remember that it was a massive campaign—and vocal support from charities and NGOs, the Government clearly had to do something. They promised to legislate separately, and the draft Animal Welfare (Sentencing and Recognition of Sentience) Bill 2017—all three clauses of it—was published in December 2017 and put out for consultation. It is fair to say that the sentience provision, which was only one clause, was flawed, as we heard when we took evidence about it on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. The consultation closed at the end of January 2018, but it was not until August 2018 that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs got around to publishing the outcome. The only excuse I have heard for the delay is that the Department had been absolutely overwhelmed by the scale of the public response. That was in August 2018, and nothing has happened.

When questioned about the lack of action, one Minister told me that the Department wanted to legislate on sentience. We heard all the usual things about the lack of parliamentary time; again, however, those of us who were in the last Parliament know there was an awful lot of time when we were sitting around doing very little, and it would have been pretty easy to get a very short Bill through Parliament. The Minister did say to me at one point that the Department was looking for a suitable vehicle to introduce legislation, so I provided one. With help from animal welfare organisations, I tabled a ten-minute rule Bill in April 2019, hoping it would spur the Government to action, but it did not. In fact, I have heard that a draft Bill was produced in July 2019 and circulated across Departments. I have heard, too, that it has been shown to animal welfare campaign groups. I have some inkling of what might be in it, but I have not actually seen it. Still, it is progress of some sort.

Since July 2019, when that mysterious Bill was perhaps put into circulation, we have had two Queen’s Speeches—in October and December—and there was no mention of the Bill in either. Despite the Government’s assurances way back in November 2017 that they would legislate before Brexit, we have now left the EU, with no legislation in place. Indeed, the animal sentience provision is one of the only provisions that were not carried over and incorporated into UK legislation when we left the EU on 31 January 2020, and the measure needs to be in place by 1 January 2021. Clearly, we are starting to run out of time.

If we do not legislate now, there are a number of risks. For example, the import of lower-welfare animal products could be permitted under new trade deals. That is something that I, the Minister and others, including my hon. Friend Daniel Zeichner, thrashed out in some detail in the Agriculture Bill—some of us for the second time. It is an important issue for animal sentience. Another issue is that developers might not have to consider the impact of new roads, housing or major infrastructure projects on wildlife in the area. Through its overseas aid or trade programmes, the UK could invest in the kinds of intensive farming systems that are not allowed in the UK because of animal welfare concerns. It would be more difficult to take action against inhumane wildlife management practices and wildlife crime.

I find the Government’s reluctance to act utterly bewildering. They are very keen to talk about how we have the highest animal welfare standards in the world; introducing legislation would simply be a way to underpin them. There is widespread consensus around this issue—not just in the House—and it is fair to say that new clause 30 would have passed if it had been put to a vote back in late 2017. Most people agree with the then Secretary of State for DEFRA, who said in October 2018 that:

“Animals are our fellow sentient beings. They show loyalty and devotion, and they know pleasure and pain.”

In a real display of irony before he took up his post, the current Secretary of State even chastised the US for its position on this issue, saying they displayed a backward

“resistance to even acknowledging the existence of sentience in farm animals.”

I turn to the Bill—to the extent that I can, given that we do not actually have one in front of us. Many of us feel that the Government should have a positive duty, not a negative duty, to pay all due regard to the welfare needs of animals as sentient beings when formulating and implementing policies. It should not just be about ensuring that no pain or suffering is caused to animals, but about considering the five freedoms and ensuring they have happy, healthy and fulfilled lives. The Bill should provide for animal welfare assessments to be prospective, not retrospective: any report to Parliament involving the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee should be done before policy is made, not afterwards. That should apply to all policy areas and to all sentient animals.

I have heard reports that the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government is seeking to be excluded from the Bill’s remit, which could mean that it would not have to pay due regard to matters of animal sentience when giving the go-ahead for planning permission for mega-farms. I think we all feel that the Government should be able to have a say on that beyond the concerns about slurry and local environmental impact, which are used at the moment to prevent things such as the Nocton dairy farm.

Many of us would like to see in the Bill a recognition of the sentience of decapod crustaceans such as crabs and lobsters, and of cephalopods such as cuttlefish, squid and the extremely intelligent octopus. Campaigns are being led by The Shellfish Network and Crustacean Compassion—the Minister is nodding, so I am sure she is aware of them. I have heard that research on whether such creatures are sentient beings has been put out to tender; the closing date is 2 April. The research will be carried out between May and November. Can the Minister tell us why the tender process has been held up for so long? We have been asking for this provision to go in the Bill ever since it was first mooted. If the research does not conclude till November, it will be too late to get the conclusion of that research into a Bill that has to be passed before 31 December.

There also needs to be a power in the Bill to create an animal welfare advisory commission. I understand that the Government support the idea to an extent, but there is no chance of its being established as a non-departmental body. It would instead be within DEFRA, which raises concerns that it would not really have the independence it needs. It would need to be able to advise all Departments, so it is not just a matter for DEFRA. Scotland recently set up its equivalent Animal Welfare Commission, with 12 independent commissioners appointed. Why cannot the UK Government commit to doing likewise?

We pride ourselves in this country on our strong record on animal welfare. As every Member present will know, few campaigns fill our postbags and email inboxes like those focused on animal welfare. However, we cannot be complacent and allow economic pressures to roll our standards back. Some people—a vocal minority—question whether such legislation is needed. Some people want greater licence to ignore animal welfare concerns, either so they can cram animals into ever more intensive and industrialised farming systems, or so they can pursue so-called country sports.

Consecutive Tory Governments have repeatedly promised to recognise animal sentience in law and have been given chance after chance to act and bring forward legislation. The time for excuses has passed; the time for action is now.