Following a vote in the House of Commons last week, MPs were accused of failing to recognise animals as sentient beings.
Sentience is the capacity for one to feel or perceive things.
The news led to outrage from animal welfare campaigners and industry experts, with many decrying the government’s alleged decision not to recognise that animals have the ability to feel.
But the vote in the House of Commons led to confused and mixed reports, with subsequent news articles having to be amended in a bid to clarify what MPs actually voted on.
So what exactly does the vote mean for animal sentience - and animal welfare - in the UK when we leave the European Union?
Here’s what you need to know.
What was actually proposed in the Commons?
In an amendment tabled by Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas, MPs were asked to incorporate Article 13 of the Lisbon Treaty into the EU (Withdrawal) Bill.
Article 13 from the Lisbon Treaty recognises that animals are sentient and puts the onus on the state to take into account animal welfare when formulating and implementing policies in areas such as agriculture, fisheries and transport.
Lucas told Parliament last Wednesday:
“The Government have rightly and commendably committed to transferring all existing EU law on animal welfare into UK law under the Bill, but because the text of the Lisbon treaty is not transferred by the Bill, the wording of article 13 on animal sentience will not explicitly be incorporated into UK law. As things stand, despite having one of the longest-standing animal welfare laws in the world—something of which we are rightly proud—the UK has no legal instrument other than article 13 of the Lisbon treaty to provide that animals are sentient beings.”
Although MPs voted down the amendment, the government has said it is not fair to say they refused to recognise animal sentience.
The subsequent backlash to the vote led many Tory MPs to directly contradict the claims that they don’t think animals are sentient.
Is animal sentience covered in the UK’s Animal Welfare Act?
During Prime Ministers Questions on Wednesday, Conservative MP Fiona Bruce asked the Prime Minster to give reassurance that the government supports the highest animal welfare standards.
After listing a number of animal welfare policies the Tories have introduced, such as mandatory CCTV in slaughterhouses and tougher sentences for animal cruelty, Theresa May responded: “We also recognise and respect that animals are sentient beings and should be treated accordingly.
“The Animal Welfare Act 2006 provides protections for all animals capable of experiencing pain or suffering which are under the control of man.
“But I reaffirm to my honourable friend that we will be ensuring that we maintain and enhance our animal welfare standards when we leave the EU.”
But Lucas later hit back at the Tory leader, saying the UK’s Animal Welfare Act does not provide a protection for animal sentience.
Gudrun Ravetz, senior vice president at the British Veterinary Association, detailed the different protections for animals in Article 13 of the Lisbon Treaty compared to the UK’s Animal Welfare Act 2006.
She told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme on Friday: “Article 13 puts a duty on the state to pay full regard to animal welfare for a specific set of policies and explicitly states that animals are sentient.
“Now the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which is UK law, puts the duty for the animal welfare on the owner or the keeper.
“And, although it implicitly states animals are sentient in the explanatory notes, that is only for vertebrates.”
She called the differences between the two “significant”, adding that if the principle of Article 13 is not brought into UK law then there would not be a duty on the state to pay full regard to animal welfare.
In the wake of the vote, Green Party MEP Keith Taylor, animals spokesperson for the party and vice president of the European Parliament’s Animal Welfare Intergroup, said it was a “lie” for ministers to claim that animal sentience is covered by the Animal Welfare Act 2006.
“It isn’t,” Taylor added. “That is why Caroline Lucas’s amendment to include the EU’s recognition of animals as sentient beings in the Withdrawal Bill was so important.”
The RSPCA also clarified that animal sentience is not included in the Animal Welfare Act.
Michelle Thew, Cruelty Free International chief executive, added: “It is not good enough for the government to say that animal sentience is covered by the UK Animal Welfare Act – the fact is, it isn’t.
“And it certainly takes no account of the pain and suffering felt by animals in laboratories. Animals are not products that can be regulated like cans of beans or widgets. The government really must think again.”
What do campaigners and animal welfare experts say?
Following the outcry over last week’s vote, many were quick to criticise MPs and a flurry of petitions were set up.
More than 130,000 people have signed Compassion in World Farming’s petition calling on the government to recognise animals as sentient beings.
The petition reads: “The EU Withdrawal Bill... has left out this important protection. It is completely absent; both the recognition of animals as sentient beings, and the requirement for governments to pay “full regard” to their welfare.
“Once the UK leaves the EU, we cannot be sure that future Governments will still treat animals as sentient beings.”
A 38 degrees petition has also been signed by more than 300,000 people and calls on the government to reverse the decision to exclude animal sentience from the EU (Withdrawal) Bill.
Meanwhile, a Care2 petition has more than 70,000 supporters.
What does the government say?
Environment secretary Michael Gove released a statement yesterday (Thursday), stating that the government is “committed to the very highest standards of animal welfare”.
The statement reads:
“As the Prime Minister has set out, we will make the United Kingdom a world leader in the care and protection of animals.
“It has been suggested that the vote last week on New Clause 30 of the EU Withdrawal Bill somehow signalled a weakening in the protection of animals - that is wrong. Voting against the amendment was not a vote against the idea that animals are sentient and feel pain - that is a misconception.
“Ministers explained on the floor of the house that this government’s policies on animal welfare are driven by our recognition that animals are indeed sentient beings and we are acting energetically to reduce the risk of harm to animals – whether on farms or in the wild. The vote against New Clause 30 was the rejection of a faulty amendment, which would not have achieved its stated aims of providing appropriate protection for animals.
“The Prime Minister has made clear that we will strengthen our animal welfare rules. This government will ensure that any necessary changes required to UK law are made in a rigorous and comprehensive way to ensure animal sentience is recognised after we leave the EU. The Withdrawal Bill is not the right place to address this, however we are considering the right legislative vehicle.”
Gove said on Friday that “no one in the House of Commons disagrees” that animals are sentient, but added that it would have created “legal uncertainty” if MPs had included the protocol in the withdrawal bill.
When queried why Parliament didn’t bring across the protocol and then add to it later, Gove said: “It’s better to have an absolutely well designed piece of UK legislation rather than a poorly designed piece of EU legislation.”
The Brexit campaigner said that the UK’s departure from the EU could lead to stronger animal welfare measures in areas such as live exports and puppy farming.
Some MPs who voted against the amendment pointed to the fact that Article 13 still allows practices such as bullfighting and foie gras production.
But Compassion in World Farming points out that such practices are only allowed under a derogation in Article 13 for “cultural practices”.
As the UK has no such cultural history of bullfighting, the clause would not be applicable in the UK if it were to incorporate Article 13 into British law, campaigners argue.
What happens next?
Gove has said that he expects there will be additional safeguards for animals written into the Animal Welfare Act 2006 before the UK leaves the EU.
“What we’re going to do is to ensure that we have stronger protection written into law in order to ensure that there is no gap,” Gove said on Friday.
“We will ensure that there is no gap in the operation of the law, and there is no way in which animal protection can be diminished in any way, in any shape, or in any form.”
Lucas welcomed the promise that there will be “no gap” in the principle of animal sentience after the UK leaves the EU.
Will the government live up to its promise?
This is the big question.
Gove has been at pains to highlight the ways the government has already strengthened animal welfare in the UK.
Measures such as installing mandatory CCTV in slaughterhouses, increasing sentences for animal cruelty and banning sales of ivory are all issues animal welfare campaigners have been championing for years - and the government has introduced all of these in the past six months.
Gove in particular has been praised by animal welfare advocates for the action he has taken to tackle cruelty and environment issues while at Defra.
But, as we are all too aware, ministers can be reshuffled and moved to different departments and experts are concerned that the UK may slip behind the EU’s current animal welfare standards.
Furthermore, the current leader of the Tory party has expressed her support for repealing the Hunting Act 2005, which banned fox hunting in its traditional form.
The RSPCA’s head of campaigns, David Bowles, said ahead of last Wednesday’s debate that the UK “risks falling down the animal friendly countries’ list”.
Compassion in World Farming has raised questions over how the government will protect animals after the UK leaves the EU and fears that the notion of animal sentience will be lost post-Brexit.
The group said in a statement:
“We very much welcome Mr Gove’s assurances in response to the public outcry on this issue. However, whilst he has given assurances, he has not said how he will deliver this protection post-Brexit, or put a timeframe on it.
“He talks about finding the ‘right legislative vehicle’. If he would confirm what this vehicle will be – for example amending the existing Animal Welfare Act or the expected Agriculture Bill - and what it will contain we would potentially be content that due consideration has been given to the issue, so long as this had the same or better legal scope.
“We remain concerned that as it stands at the moment, the recognition of animals as sentient beings, and the need to pay full regard to that sentience when formulating policy, will be lost post-Brexit.”