This week, at Lords Committee on the EU Withdrawal Bill, we will be heading into battle on animal sentience – an issue that Ministers have been handling quite badly. Two separate amendments – one in my name, the other led by the Green’s Baroness Jones – would both enshrine in the Bill the requirement to treat animals as sentient beings as set out in Article 13 of Title II of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU.
Similar amendments were debated in the Commons but voted down by the government – much to the wrath of the animal charities, and tarnishing Defra Secretary Michael Gove’s newly polished credentials as an animal loving, green campaigner.
Gove’s initial response was that the amendments were already covered in UK law and therefore unnecessary. When this was proved not to be the case, he reached for a more radical solution. This entailed hastily adding animal sentience amendments to a draft Bill on animal cruelty that was days away from publication. The resulting chaos was a legislative dogs’ breakfast.
The Commons Defra Committee gave Gove’s plans short shrift and, in a pre-legislative scrutiny report, advised him to go back to the drawing board. In a scathing analysis, they argued that animals ‘deserved better than to be treated in a cavalier fashion’. And concluded that the Bill had been presented to the public in a far from finished state with many of the key concepts remaining undefined. Put another way, the legislation had not been properly thought through.
As a result, we now expect that Bill to be significantly redrafted to make it fit for purpose. Indeed, Labour has offered to work with Ministers to improve that legislation and deliver a serious piece of work based on the best scientific advice.
In the meantime, those poorly drafted animal sentience clauses are holding up other vital measures that will increase sentences for animal cruelty. And having backfired spectacularly, Gove’s rushed defence of his animal welfare credentials has also meant there are no guarantees of animal sentience in the EU Withdrawal Bill.
That is why Labour continues to take the lead on these issues. Our recently published Animal Welfare Plan supports the full transposition of protections for animals from EU to UK law, reflects the latest scientific evidence on pain and suffering, and seeks to prevent cruel and degrading practices.
Our first step however, is to ensure that the principle of animal sentience is enshrined in the EU Withdrawal Bill – based on the current EU definitions. With the Bill proposing widespread powers for Ministers, our amendment aims to prevent any changes to EU-derived legislation which fail to recognise the welfare requirements of animals. That would put the principle in place, in domestic law before Brexit day.
Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is Shadow Defra Minister in the House of Lords