The future of animal sentience in UK law?

Will we see UK legislation explicitly enshrining the principle of animal sentience soon?

Do animals feel pain and emotions? The answer (yes, they do!) may seem obvious, but, remarkably, a debate over the sentience of animals has erupted this month in the UK.

It’s understandable that so many people are deeply concerned about this issue. Denying animals’ capacity to suffer could have huge ramifications for animal welfare protection – but do we need to panic just yet?

The recent conversation around this issue stems from a House of Commons vote last week on an amendment tabled by Caroline Lucas MP, calling for the sentience of animals to be formally recognised as part of the Brexit bill. Currently the sentience of animals is recognised under a treaty of the European Union, but not as a regulation in its own right. What this basically means is it wouldn’t be included in the bundle of regulations that are planned to be transferred to UK law after we leave the EU. Caroline Lucas’ amendment would have solved this by ensuring the sentience of animals was enshrined in the UK’s post Brexit policy.

Disappointingly the amendment was voted down 313 to 295, giving the Government a slim majority of 18, which was enough to reject it. The furore the vote has caused, however, is astonishing. It’s been amazing to see how many compassionate people have spoken out on social media to affirm the importance of acknowledging animals’ sentience. The Prime Minister even felt the need to jump into the debate during this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions. Theresa May responded to a question from Fiona Bruce MP about animal welfare after Brexit by saying, “we recognise and respect that animals are sentient beings, and should be treated accordingly.”

The Government has argued that the Animal Welfare Act already ensures sentient animals are afforded protection under UK domestic law, meaning there was no need to bring in this supplementary, and arguably superfluous, legislation.

Is this the case though? True, the Animal Welfare Act protects domestic animals in the UK and animal lovers across the country have applauded the recent news that sentencing for animal cruelty cases is set to increase. However; the act does not explicitly recognise the sentience of animals, nor does it offer the same level of protection to wild animals. There is undeniably a valid argument that animal sentience should not only be formally acknowledged, but also form the basis for policy decision making concerning all animals in the future. As former shadow Defra Secretary Kerry McCarthy MP tweeted following the vote, “Sentience - as included in Lisbon Treaty - is an important concept when it comes to transactions involving animals, eg live exports. Animals should be treated as sentient beings, not just objects/ property.”

In his response to Ms Lucas’ amendment, Minister Dominic Raab indicated that the Government would be considering alternative ways to explicitly recognise animal sentience in domestic law. We, along with many other animal welfare groups and concerned individuals across the UK, are keen to see tangible plans from the Government on this issue as soon as possible. After all, actions speak louder than words.

The public uproar forced Defra Secretary of State Michael Gove to make an official statement that reitereated the Government’s commitment to “the very highest standards of animal welfare.” He pointed out the limitations of current EU legislation on issues such as puppy smuggling and live exports. He stated Once we have left the EU there is even more we could do” and you can be assured that we at IFAW will hold him to this.

So we’re not jumping to any conclusions yet. Last week’s vote hasn’t stripped any existing protections from animals, nor does it mean that MPs don’t believe animals can feel pain. But as we exit the EU, the Government vitally needs to ensure the principle of animal sentience is enshrined in UK law, so that we can go forwards, not backwards, in giving all animals the protection they deserve.  

--RH

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