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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:11 pm on 16th March 2020.

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Photo of Kirsten Oswald Kirsten Oswald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work, Pensions and Inclusion) 5:11 pm, 16th March 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I am pleased to have the opportunity to sum up for my party in this important debate.

There cannot be an MP anywhere who does not receive a large quantity of correspondence on this subject; East Renfrewshire is no different. It is interesting that there are large numbers of us here in Westminster Hall, considering how quiet it is in Westminster today. That reflects the fact that people all over the United Kingdom are focused on this issue. I have been very interested by the excellent speeches that we have heard today, particularly that of my hon. Friend Patricia Gibson, who is a tireless advocate for animal welfare, as is Kerry McCarthy, who moved the debate in such an excellent and powerful way, taking us through how we got to where we are now.

Evidently, there is a degree of reluctance—it is hard to get away from that. Despite assurances from the UK Government, the issue of animal sentience is not being dealt with in the way that many of us think it should be. That is disappointing. As we move forward and leave the EU, there are real risks for animals, including wildlife and farm animals, and in how crime relating to them is dealt with. The hon. Member for Bristol East rightly pointed out how odd it is that the UK Government speak so positively about animal welfare, yet here we are.

On a personal level, it is important to me that the SNP has a strong stance on this issue. I have been a vegetarian for several decades, if not a vegan, like the hon. Member for Bristol East, but I might get there. It has become increasingly important to me and many others to know that animals are offered appropriate and proper treatment, and to have an acknowledgment that they are sentient beings and ought to be treated accordingly.

The SNP is committed to improving animal welfare standards, which is welcome, and we are taking action in Scotland this year to ensure that that continues to be reflected in legislation. It is positive that the SNP Scottish Government recently introduced the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill. It sends a clear and important message that animal cruelty and wildlife crime will not be tolerated in Scotland. The Bill delivers on a promise that the Scottish Government made to create new legislation to further protect animals and wildlife. It would be interesting to hear whether the Minister intends to reflect it in similar legislation here.

To be clear, a sentient animal is one that can experience feelings such as pain or pleasure. We have all seen that in reality; we all know what it means. We can summon images to our minds, such as loving and beloved family dogs—John Howell spoke positively about them—or horses kicking their heels for joy. My hon. Friend Allan Dorans spoke about cows and calves; I think we all know what he was talking about—there surely cannot be any doubt about the principle. The hon. Member for Henley said that he felt that sentience was covered by case law, but let us be sure and have clear, indisputable regulation rather than relying upon that.

The hon. Member for Bristol East spoke about the repeated promises about legislation that the UK Government made, but that were still unfulfilled. I wonder if the hon. Member for Henley, who was politely dismissive of the issue of welfare standards in trade talks, could reflect further on that. His assurances are welcome, but some real assurance is needed, not just the repetition that we do not need to worry about that.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran explained, there is significant concern amongst our constituents and many others. People are fearful about the issue of chlorine-washed chicken, among other things. We need to be able to reassure people on those matters, as well as on welfare. Foremost among the commitments that the SNP Government in Scotland have made is one to maintain animal rights standards as a minimum, and not to compromise those standards during trade talks. As we have heard again today, as the trade talks begin, we must be clear that those animal welfare standards must not be traded away by the UK.

Sir David Amess spoke about the cross-party interest in animal welfare. It is important that we acknowledge that and, given that, we should be able to find ways to move forward. We have heard that the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill increases the maximum penalties in Scotland that can be applied to the most serious offences, and that five years’ imprisonment or an unlimited fine are possibilities. I think there is an appetite across the House for similar measures here.

In terms of the slaughter of livestock, we support that being undertaken as close as possible to the point of production, and with full regard for animal welfare standards, which brings me to the issue of slaughterhouses in Scotland. More than eight in 10 slaughterhouses in Scotland have already installed CCTV coverage in their premises on a voluntary basis, but we will legislate in Scotland to ensure that that is a requirement for all slaughterhouses.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock spoke about the first independent Animal Welfare Commission, which is being put in place in Scotland. It will be chaired by Professor Cathy Dwyer. It will specifically look at how the welfare needs of sentient animals are being met, possible legislative and non-legislative routes to further protect the welfare of sentient animals and the research requirements to provide an evidence base for future policy developments. They are sensible and structured measures. The hon. Member for Bristol East pointed out that Scotland had recently done this and, quite reasonably, asked why the UK Government had not done the same.

There cannot be any doubt about the clear and uncompromising message that animal cruelty and welfare will not be tolerated in Scotland. I am grateful to the Scottish Minister for Rural Affairs and Natural Environment, Mairi Gougeon, who has done significant work on that. James Daly spoke powerfully about the need for consequences for people who mistreat animals and penalties that deter people. The provisions in the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill, which was introduced in September 2019, are the type of measures he is talking about. Hon. Members are always positive when they hear that the Bill includes increased penalties for attacks on service animals, otherwise known as Finn’s law. We rightly hear a great deal about that.

In her powerful speech Stephanie Peacock told us where we need to be now. The Government need to pick up on all the issues and demonstrate that they are listening, and that they intend to put in place measures in which we can have confidence and on which we can rely, so that we can point them out to our constituents, who are so concerned about the welfare of animals.

I was pleased when Kirsteen Campbell, the chief executive of the Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said:

“These exciting changes— those made by the Scottish Government— have the potential to be transformational for animals across the country”.

That is important, because the way we deal with animals says much about us. It is heartening to hear the level of people’s concern not to let such things slip by, and to take account of the need to make proper welfare provision for animals. I was struck by what the hon. Member for Southend West said about the challenges we face just now, and how important pets will be to many people. I reflect on a fantastic charity that started some years ago in my area, called Give a Dog a Bone…and an animal a home. It links up elderly and lonely people with pets that need a home. We will need a great deal more of that kind of work, and I hope that people will feel able to support such organisations.

I hope that the people who signed the petition that secured this debate feel the issues that concern them have had an airing, and that the Minister will give some assurances that there are changes afoot, and that there will be some kind of regulation.