If politicians have any sense they will make animal sentience part of UK law

| 4th December 2017
Michael Gove and his dog, Snowy

Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, at home with his pet dog Snowy.

The Telegraph
Britain is known as a nation of animal lovers. It is the birthplace of Watership Down, Peter Rabbit - and Animal Farm. But the meat, cosmetics and other animal dependent industries are also a large part of the British economy. Until now, EU regulations have improved animal welfare. As the country prepares for Brexit, HELEN BROWNING asks whether animal sentience will remain recognised by UK law.

People in Britain care enormously about animals and their wellbeing.  When we remember the backlash against proposals to sell off our forests - governments beware!

A narrow majority of MPs rejected the inclusion of animal sentience into UK law as part of our departure from the EU when the issue came to the House of Commons. The decision instigated a wave of public outrage and petitions.

For many people - and I’m one of them - this felt like a big step backwards. Animal sentience has been a key provision in EU law since 2007, when it became a binding article in the Lisbon Treaty.

If the UK ultimately decides to reject the principle of animal sentience, this would undermine the future of farm animal welfare in the UK post-Brexit, and be way out of step with our proud history of going ahead of the pack with regulation to protect farm animals.

Governments beware

Fortunately, however, it seems that government is now stepping up to proactively address the issue in the law and, moreover, it states that it wants to go beyond Article 13’s current legal provisions. 

Evidence for animal sentience has been available for over 60 years, and the topic now has over 2,000 studies to its name – from Harry Harlow’s 1959 study of orphaned monkeys with ‘dummy mothers’, to 2012’s Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness.

To be honest, to most people who live alongside animals, this is all jolly good, but also blatantly obvious. I remember the shock of stumbling across Ruth Harrison’s Animal Machines in my school library, and being aghast at the systems that she exposed;.

Growing up on dairy, beef and sheep farm, I had no idea that this was becoming the new reality, especially for pigs and poultry. It also made a profound impact on a wide public, and led to Britain's first farm animal welfare legislation.

People in Britain care enormously about animals and their wellbeing.  When we remember the backlash against proposals to sell off our forests - governments beware!

Incentives and funding

Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, has since the House of Commons vote confirmed that he will ensure that animal sentience is included in forthcoming legislation and transferred into UK law.

However, the claims made in Gove’s statement and through DEFRA’s blog on the issue are extraordinarily vague. There are no timelines, and no detailed policies. DEFRA alludes on its blog to legislation that will encompass all animals, both on farms and in the wild.

But what form will such comprehensive legislation take? How does it intend to address animal testing in the cosmetics industry? The abuse of companion animals?  CCTV in abattoirs is all well and good, but further clarity is needed as soon as possible, especially on the legal underpinning that is the essential foundation for future welfare policy.

Whilst we await news on how animal sentience will be enshrined into UK law, there are many other policies that ministers should be considering in order to show they’re serious about the UK being a world leader in farm animal welfare.

We’ve identified six key areas for action: setting the ambition that all farm animals should have a ‘good life’ within 10 years; mandatory labelling by method of production; stopping the overuse of antibiotics; incentives and funding for investment in farm infrastructure; the expansion of organic farming; and support for agroforestry.

Farmers struggle

One reason why the animal sentience principle needs to be included in UK law is that, unlike other UK animal welfare legislation, it puts a duty on the Government to have regard to animal welfare when formulating and implementing policy, rather than merely putting a duty on individuals.

The government now needs to make sure UK farmers can compete against imports, with clear red lines on trade agreements and national negotiations.

As it currently stands, in order for countries to export their products to the EU, they are bound by strict regulations.

The United States has previously argued that the EU’s (and, therefore, the UK’s) regulations represent ‘barriers to trade’– the UK will be under pressure to forge new trade deals after Brexit, and these standards may well be up for negotiation.

If UK trade policy allows imports of cheap food, produced to lower standards, UK farmers could be priced out. The Lords Select Committee report warns that this could incentivise a “race to the bottom”, as farmers struggle to push the costs of production lower and lower.

Parliamentary motion

Without the animal sentience principle requiring the government to consider animal welfare in policy-making, these risks would be even greater.

Given the importance of this issue, the outcry prompted by this vote has given Gove the opportunity to confirm that Defra will not only put animal sentience into law, but go beyond this to further improve animal welfare.

While our government evaluates what the “right legislative vehicle” for this will be, there is some urgency to clarify plans and timescales as soon as possible, to reassure those who have had their confidence knocked by recent events.

In the interim, the Soil Association is supporting Early Day Motion 287: EU protocol on animal sentience, tabled by Caroline Lucas MP.

This parliamentary motion welcomes Gove’s statement that “the Government's policies on animal protection are driven by a recognition that animals are sentient beings” and then calls on the Government to “act upon this commitment by tabling an appropriate amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill at the earliest possible opportunity”.

Right noises

The public - as is always the case when it comes to food - wields considerable influence. A survey for the RSPCA found that over 80 percent of the UK public support maintaining or enhancing farm animal welfare after Brexit. This is a good opportunity for us all to make that happen.

The future of our farms and our wildlife hangs in the balance with Brexit. Farming is never an easy job, but the uncertainty will stymy business investment, and whether all those who are working hard to achieve the right policies will succeed remains to be seen.

I am convinced that it is possible to find a way forward that rewards farmers for caring for nature and farm animals, providing public access and healthy food, and regenerates soils and local communities. Politicians have been making many of the right noises. We must both help them and hold them to account as they turn these words into action. 

This Author

Helen Browning is chief executive of the Soil Association and also chairs the Food Ethics Council. She has been a member of the government Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food. Helen was awarded an OBE in 1998 for her contribution to organic farming. She tweets at @HelenBOrganic.