UK Government makes welcome move to enshrine Animal Sentience in UK law
21 November 2017 - 10:50am
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”.
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.
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]