‘Dogs are no smarter than pigeons’, said scientists and journalists following a 2018 review of animal brain power.
Yet, everyday millions of people walk blithely by urban pigeons with missing feet and broken wings; suffering and emotionless in silence.
How many of us would walk past a Labrador pup in the street dragging a broken leg, whining loudly and seeking our compassion with feeling eyes that pierce our soul?
Such is the conundrum politicians currently face in trying to square scientific evidence with unconscious bias in the government’s new Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill.
In May the government published its action plan for animal welfare stating that it wanted to recognise animals as sentient beings in law. This in turn would lead to government ministers being held accountable to Parliament for the way they take animal welfare into account when making policy decisions.
So, it was surprising that when the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill was introduced to the House of Lords that the Bill did not define animal sentience.
Rather, the Bill seeks to create an animal sentience committee that would scrutinise all government policy. Moreover, it would also make recommendations on whether or not the government has due regard to animal sentience; all without an agreed definition of animal sentience.
Since the advent of these policy developments, BASC has joined forces with the Angling Trust to brief politicians and civil servants on the potential impact the Bill could have on sustainable shooting and angling, leaving country sports vulnerable to those seeking a ban or severe curtailment.
The All-Party Parliamentary Groups for Shooting and Angling have been discussing the Bill, which will soon move from the House of Lords to the House of Commons for debate.
MPs will also be scrutinising the Bill through an inquiry by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee which BASC has submitted a response to.
BASC members keep animals, respect their quarry and care deeply about animal welfare. Some key points we have been making to peers and MPs are as follows:
· Animal sentience has been implicit in British law since the Cruelty to Animals Act 1835. The welfare needs of animals are covered by the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and inter-related advice, guidance and codes of practice for various sectors.
· Policy and legislation should be science and evidence based. However, there is no definition of sentience in the Bill, despite 80% of the respondents to a 2018 government consultation supporting the inclusion of a definition.
· EU law on sentience is limited and balanced. It applies to “agriculture, fisheries, transport, internal market, research and technological development and space policies”. Member States are required to have “full regard” to animal welfare “while respecting the legislative or administrative provisions and customs of the EU countries relating in particular to religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage.” (Lisbon Treaty, article 13 of title II). There are no similar limits or balance in the Bill.
· There is no requirement in the Bill for the committee to consider the public interest, nor the legislative or administrative provisions and customs of the UK; such as religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage.
· The UK is a meat-eating society where vertebrate animals are farmed and hunted for food and are used in scientific and medical research. The fact that the proposed Animal Sentience Committee is not required to consider the public interest will lead to conflict between activist groups and the government. The composition of the committee must include representation from medical, scientific, farming, fishing and shooting interests.
· Clarity is required on animal welfare advice within government, the composition and remit of the Animal Sentience Committee, the balance between the public interest and sentience; and assurances are required that legal activities such as research, farming and country sports will not be damaged.
Policy development around animal welfare and sentience will continue to be politically volatile.
A recent Lords debate on the Bill was heated, with peers scathing about proposals that could open up a pandora’s box of unintended consequences for society. Not to mention a potential barrage of judicial reviews.
While an animal rights agenda may resonate in some Whitehall circles and on social media, rural MPs could soon find themselves defending policies that are out of touch with their constituents.