UK Government makes welcome move to enshrine Animal Sentience in UK law

We published this feature in late November when this issue broke, but on the 12th December Defra announced that the UK will introduce a new Animal Welfare Bill 2018 that '...sets out that the government “must have regard to the welfare needs of animals as sentient beings in formulating and implementing government policy”.

Whilst welcoming this move, WDC will look closely at the actual text and seek to ensure that the law applies not only to Ministers but all government agencies. The law should also be closely linked to the forthcoming Environmental Bill to ensure that economic and 'public policy' issues, such as fast-tracking oil and gas exploration activities, are not used to circumvent animal welfare concerns.

The Proposed Bill can be found here

Original Article

To many observers, and if social media was to be believed, the UK Parliament appeared to have taken the controversial step of indicating its intention to reject EU legislation that sees non-human animals as sentient beings and so essentially ruling that all animals (apart from humans) have no emotions or feelings, including the ability to feel pain.

The move came as part of the Government’s initial plans to see through its EU (Withdrawal) Bill. An amendment tabled by Caroline Lucas (Green Party) had tried to bring across the relevant language in the Protocol to the Lisbon Treaty that addressed the issue of sentience.

The Government and MPs opposed to the amendment argued that,

1. UK law already covered animal sentience under provisions contained in the 2006 Animal Welfare Act

2. Not all provisions of the Protocol should be brought across, especially derogations that allowed certain forms of animal suffering.

The amendment was defeated by 313 votes to 295

There is overwhelming scientific evidence that many whales and dolphins are highly intelligent sentient fellow creatures. Different species of dolphins, variously, recognise themselves in mirrors, help sick pod mates, socialise, live in complex societies, play for fun, grieve for their dead as we saw in the recent BBC BluePlant2, and pass cultural information between individuals.  Some individuals even have a very specific role to play within their communities, therefore it is logical that they should have certain rights recognised.

Whale eye

We know that some species possess brain cells known as spindle neurons, believed to be associated with empathy and emotional intelligence. People used to think that these cells were only found in the brains of humans and some other primates but now they have been discovered in whale and dolphin species leading to some theories that suggest their emotional intelligence may be on a level far greater than ours.

The arguments to have sentience to be recognised in UK law is not over, and there are opportunities to revisit this issue when debated in the House of Lords and when the Bill returns to the House of Commons. WDC welcomed the fact that Ministers acknowledged that animals are sentient during the House of Commons debate, but some confused statements about sentience already being covered by existing legislation in the 2006 Animal Welfare Act were just plain incorrect.

The Prime Minister repeated this inaccuracy in the House of Commons on 22nd November, in response to a question [subject to amend once Hansard published]

Fiona Bruce: Will the PM reassure people that the Govt is committed to the UK's strong commitment to highest standards in animal welfare?
 
Prime Minister: ...We also recognise and respect that animals are sentient beings and should be treated according. [The] Animal Welfare Act 2006 provides protection for all animals capable of experiencing pain or suffering.

1. The 2006 Animal Welfare Act at 2(c) specifically excludes wild animals from being covered by 'protected animal' designation under the Act.

2. The Protocol to the Lisbon Treaty also mandates countries, including the UK at the moment, to consider animal welfare in formulating and implementing all policies... something the 2006 Act does not cover but is very much needed.

3. What we would ask the Government and Parliament to consider is that the derogations allowed in the Protocol for 'cultural' reasons for causing animal suffering should not be adopted.

The House of Commons Library Service issued a briefing on the debate to-date.

Conservative backbenchers such as Zac Goldsmith and Richard Benyon have said that the Government will be addressing this overall issue in the weeks to come, so we shall look to them for progress in addressing this potentially calamitous omission. The Bill now goes onto the House of Lords, we expect, in January, before it comes back to the Commons. We would expect things to be happening at this time, but we shall be doing our best to make sure the necessary changes happen.

On the 23rd November, reflecting the importance the British public attach to the issue, the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, on behalf of the UK Government issued a statement on the issue after massive public concern at the potential loss of the concept of animal sentience from UK law. WDC will work with other UK welfare organisations and all stakeholders to arrive at a solution that best serves whale and dolphins and all other sentient animals. The Secretary of State sought to further clarify the situation on the BBC on the 24th November.

On the 12th December Defra announced that the UK will introduce a new Animal Welfare Bill 2018 that '...sets out that the government “must have regard to the welfare needs of animals as sentient beings in formulating and implementing government policy”.

Whilst welcoming this move, WDC will look closely at the actual text and seek to ensure that the law applies not only to Ministers but all government agencies. The law should also be closely linked to the forthcoming Environmental Bill to ensure that economic and 'public policy' issues, such as fast-tracking oil and gas exploration activities, are not used to circumvent animal welfare concerns.

WDC will continue to push for whale and dolphin rights to be recognised in law and stop exploitation such as humans claiming ownership of a whale or dolphin, or cause them harm without repercussions.

Please help us to achieve this vision by donating now.

WDC helped develop a ‘declaration’ on rights for whales and dolphins, which you can also sign to show your support.
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