The Conservative Party has been striving to modernise and reach out to a younger electorate. In this context, jettisoning Article 13 of the Treaty of Lisbon would be an own goal of epic proportions. In a plea to broaden her parties appeal, Theresa May has referred to the criticism that the Tories are sometimes called the ‘nasty party’. What rational political party wants to be associated with dropping the basic recognition that nonhuman animals are sentient, and the consequent downgrading of animal welfare en masse? Eliminating the legal recognition of the most powerless in society, including over a billion sentient farm animals, provides nuclear fuel to such criticism from the political left. Many millions of voters will simply fail to see how a compassionate political party can vote down Article 13, which is a statement in law that the most powerless matter.
Indeed, Michael Gove has now been forced to publish a written ministerial statement on the government’s position. Gove states that the government is committed to the ‘very highest’ standards of animal welfare. He claims it is ‘wrong’ to perceive the vote against New Clause 30 as a weakening of the protection of animals. His statement goes on to criticise both the New Clause 30 amendment, tabled by Caroline Lucas, and Article 13 as a legislative instrument. The ministerial statement does little to assuage serious concern about the government position. To understand why, it is necessary to appreciate how Article 13 differs from legislation such as the Animal Welfare Act 2006.
Article 13 became a part of the Treaty of the Functioning of the EU. It is therefore at least analogous to a constitutional statement, operating at a supranational level, about the protection of animals in the EU. It is more fundamental than secondary EU secondary legislation, regulations and directives which are directly or indirectly incorporated into the laws of member states. New Clause 30 is set out below:
Obligations and rights contained within the EU Protocol on animal sentience set out in Article 13 of Title II of the Lisbon Treaty shall be recognised and available in domestic law on and after exit day, and shall be enforced and followed accordingly.
The obligation referred to is the obligation of government to recognise the sentience of animals and to pay full regard to their welfare requirements in formulating and implementing policy. Thus, Article 13, as it functioned in the EU and as it would do so after Brexit, operates to confer an obligation on government when legislating and otherwise making policy. In this context, there are three points to make about the ministerial statement. First, nowhere in the statement does the government commit to legislating an equivalent of Article 13. Secondly, the statement is a jam-tomorrow claim that any person with some knowledge of policy making and politics has every right to be wary of. Thirdly, the statement as a whole paints a message about EU and UK animal health and welfare policy positions that is problematic. The message is that the EU has been holding back a far more enlightened UK position on animal welfare. The implication being that Britain will move to a more progressive position on animal welfare post-Brexit. However, it is instructive to remember that Defra has had an official policy against gold-plating EU animal welfare policy for a number of years. It is also worth remembering that the UK is looking to make trade deals with countries such as the US, a far more politically and economically powerful nation than the UK and one with substantially lower animal welfare standards.
In voting against incorporating the protocol on animal sentience, the British government is sending out two messages. The first concerns the reputation of our nation as an enlightened protector of the interests of sentient animals. It is difficult to see how government ministers could henceforth make statements proclaiming Britain as having the most progressive animal welfare laws in the world, when the state has rejected a policy position that explicitly recognises sentience and its duty to pay full regard to animal welfare. In this respect, the Opposition, and indeed other countries, can rightly counter that there are at least 27 nation states that have more progressive policy than the UK, referring to those EU Member States fully signed up to Article 13 of the Lisbon Treaty. Thus, to vote against the incorporation of the protocol is not only to downgrade the moral status of animals in the UK, but to damage the hard-earned reputation of Britain as a leader in animal protection. If conservatism is about conserving the best of tradition, culture and civilisation, the rejection of the protocol on animal sentience is decidedly not a conservative policy.
Secondly, if Britain rejects the recognition of sentience and the duty of government to pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals, how can we reasonably expect other nations to do likewise? What moral authority does the UK have to promote animal welfare in China, the Middle East, Africa, or indeed the US, when the British state refuses even to acknowledge the sentience of animals in law? The implications of the Conservative government failing to incorporate the protocol on animal welfare are enormous. It will not only impact many of the billion land animals farmed and killed in the UK each year, but potentially the many more billions of animals around the world in nations that look to Britain for leadership in animal welfare. The impact, of course, is determinately negative. If a government downgrades the moral status of any group and rejects the plea to take account of its interests in policy making, the outcome on that group will not be good.
The British people care deeply about the billions of sentient animals that government policy impacts. The vote against Clause 30 signals not an enlightened Cabinet of wise representatives but a closet of neo-Cartesians throwing out the moral status of animals with the EU bath water. If the UK government is to represent the beliefs and values of its citizens, and thus have democratic legitimacy, it must amend the EU Withdrawal Bill to include the recognition that animals are sentient and renew its pledge to pay full regard to their welfare requirements. There remain various opportunities to do this. New Clause 28 is a cross party amendment tabled by Kerry McCarthy and Ken Clark which includes the Article 13 protocol together with environmental policy provisions. Amendment 350 is an official Labour Party amendment referring to animal sentience and including Article 13 in its explanatory notes.
Perhaps the best outcome all round would be for the Conservative government to introduce its own Article 13 amendment, either in the Commons or the Lords. This way, the Conservative government would be able to take credit for introducing the amendment, consistent with its claims to be a compassionate and modernising party.
Mahatma Gandhi famously said that the moral progress of a nation and its greatness can be judged by how it treats its animals. He said furthermore that the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection. There are no good arguments against Gandhi’s insightful and wise words.