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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:21 pm on 16th March 2020.

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Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 5:21 pm, 16th March 2020

My hon. Friend is dead right. There is an amazing amount of good political meat in publications by the Environment Secretary from the time when he was on the Back Benches. It feels as if the Opposition do not need to remind him of them, because I am sure his officials have churned through those plentiful publications, and the amendments he tabled to an earlier Agriculture Bill. Sadly, his new batch of Ministers recently voted against those proposals, but they include things for which there is a lot of support, and there is cross-party support for what we are discussing today.

I do not think British diplomats in Washington instructing President Trump to raise his domestic animal welfare standards to get a trade deal with the UK would work, but it is important to maintain high levels of protection in law, so that during negotiations the people we are negotiating with know the strength of feeling of the British people and Parliament: that we will not accept any lowering of standards or undercutting of them in any trade deal. That is why we need the animal sentience legislation to be implemented before the end of the implementation period. We cannot allow our animal welfare standards to fall behind those of the EU, especially after the plentiful promises of Conservative Ministers.

The animal sentience legislation that I hope the Minister will announce needs to apply to all policy areas and all sentient animals. If an animal is sentient, they are sentient no matter how they are being used by humans or where they are living. The law needs to confer an active duty to respect that sentience on all aspects of government. Simply having a function within DEFRA to advise the rest of Government is insufficient because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East said, there are other Departments that need to reflect the importance of animals in their day-to-day work and that might not, as standard, take animal sentience on board. That is why an independent monitor is such a good idea.

The legislation should require the Government to publish an annual report detailing how the duty has been acted on, including the policy options considered and what animal welfare impact assessments have been undertaken. It also needs to recognise that decapods and cephalopods—that is, crabs and lobsters, octopuses and squids—are sentient animals. In Labour’s animal welfare manifesto, which, again, is a very good read and still available on the website, we make the case that lobsters experience anxiety, crabs use tools, and octopuses have been known to predict the results of football matches—at least, that is not quite in the manifesto, but the sense of it is.

That is why, in our manifesto, we talk about not allowing those precious creatures to be boiled alive, for instance. We know that if you put a lobster in a boiling pot of water, it experiences pain. The pain may be lessened by the experience of being slowly heated, but it is pain none the less, and there are better ways of doing it.

The petition calls for a new body to support the Government in their duties to animals, which I referred to briefly, to ensure that

“decisions are underpinned by…scientific and ethics expertise.”

It has been proposed under a few names. The experience of Scotland was mentioned by Kirsten Oswald, and Allan Dorans spoke about how Scotland has already got there. In Scotland, it is called the animal welfare commission, but it could also be an animal welfare advisory council. In our manifesto, we talk about an animal welfare commissioner. Regardless of the name or the precise format, the function is the same: to support and critically analyse, to advise Ministers and Government to make the right decisions, and to ensure that the effects are truly understood.

My party prides itself on being the party for animal welfare. At the last election, we were the only party to publish a manifesto exclusively on animal rights. In it, we set out how we would appoint an independent animal welfare commissioner to operate in England and in collaboration with the devolved Administrations. Now that the UK is no longer a member of the European Food Safety Authority, we need to establish a body that can advise DEFRA and all of Government independently, and to represent the wealth of scientific, ethics and animal welfare expertise available in the UK.

We know that at the moment there is no specific body that is under a statutory duty to enforce the welfare requirements of Labour’s landmark Animal Welfare Act 2006, which my hon. Friend Stephanie Peacock mentioned. That needs to be placed on a statutory footing, and an animal welfare commissioner would help to achieve that. I recommend that the Minister cut and paste that from our manifesto into her Department’s work plan; if she did, it would enjoy the cross-party support that we have seen from Sir David Amess and my hon. Friend Alex Davies-Jones, who were united in the same effort here.

The commissioner would be responsible for gathering the latest scientific evidence on animal sentience and welfare, to ensure that there is the most up-to-date, evidence-based understanding across Whitehall, and to ensure that our nation maintains its top ranking in the animal protection index. Working alongside Government, the commissioner would assist in the promotion of best practice in animal welfare internationally because, although we pride ourselves on the legislative framework, Britons care about animal welfare both at home and abroad. To see that, we need only look at changes that the tourism industry has made to remove animals from so many of the products sold to British tourists, because that is not something Brits support.

Ministers are often found saying that the legislation that has been proposed now that we have left the EU is world leading, but time and again the evidence does not support that high-falutin’ soundbite. The Bills that have come out of DEFRA recently on agriculture and the environment have, I am afraid, been disappointing, at a time when many of us—including many of the “greenies” from across the parties and across the divide here—had high hopes that they really would deliver on that promise.

We cannot be world leading without an animal welfare commissioner. We are not even leading in the UK, because Scotland already has an animal welfare commissioner. England is already lagging behind. That matters as well. My little sister is a sheep farmer in Cornwall and, if she were to move north of the border, the animals that she now keeps in Cornwall would have a different legislative framework and different protections. That does not quite seem right for the same sheep, and I think there is an option to look at that again. I am not advocating taking sheep out of the Secretary of State’s own county along the way, for fear of offending him, but having those standards across our islands is important when it comes to animal welfare.

As I conclude, I will mention briefly John Howell, who said in his remarks that he was exasperated by the language around chlorinated chicken. Indeed, many people in this place are, and the answer is very simple: put it in the Bill. That would prevent our standards from ever being undercut. If the hon. Gentleman believes the words of Ministers—they are said so very often—there is no reason for that not be put in a Bill, because those words are already on record. The thing is, I do not believe Ministers when they say that. There is an important element of building trust in these areas.