Last Gift to the Animals from a Friend in Parliament

The winner of the Westminster Dog of the Year show, as judged on College Green last week, was a French Bulldog called Vivienne. She had been entered into the competition by Sir David Amess (pronounced ‘amis’), the MP who was killed at a constituency surgery on 18 October. Vivienne was a popular – indeed a prejudiced – choice, but then the show is a way of drawing attention to the pleasures and responsibilities of dog-companionship, rather than a serious assessment of canine points, in the scientific Crufts manner. To some extent it’s even a parody of Crufts, or I hope it is. Being light-hearted, then, it brings out that curious facetiousness which seems to infect the subject, with talk of “our furry friends” and “pawlitics”, and so on. Still, the result was a very proper and moving recognition of Sir David’s devotion to animal interests during his long parliamentary career.

The tributes paid to him in the House of Commons spoke of his “love of animals”. As far as I have noticed, Amess himself did not use that phrase, either about himself or (as so commonly heard in Parliament) about the nation. He spoke rather about their qualities – “absolutely wonderful animals” (of elephants), “sensitive and intelligent animals” (of pigs), “a generous, giving nature” (of the dog Vivienne). His concern was impartially for all suffering animals, loved or not. During a debate about wildlife crime in 2019, he spoke of his collaborations with the former MP Ann Widdecombe: “we led campaigns against live-animal exports, the badger cull, animal experimentation, dog meat, the fur trade, and the netting and killing of songbirds throughout the Mediterranean.”

That homely concept ‘love of animals’ also misrepresents the strength and range of attention which David Amess brought to these problems. In that same debate, occurring at a time when there was still some inclination in his own party (Conservative) to revisit and even repeal the Hunting Act, he said this:

It beggars believe that anyone would set dogs on foxes and think that it is acceptable to have them physically torn apart. I think that most civilized people, and I hope most Members of Parliament, would find that repugnant.

Not affection, or not just affection, but a humane society was what he wanted (and you note the joke implied in putting himself and other MPs in a separate category to “civilized people”: he was a humorous man). So of course animals were part of a corpus of public problems, interests, and concerns he wished to deal with. But they were also much more than that to him, for they were part of his spiritual convictions as a Roman Catholic. During a debate promoted by Amess himself on 7 December 2011 about the use of animals in research (a practice which he considered “ethically and morally wrong”), he reminded the House that the Holy Family in the Bethlehem stable was “surrounded by animals”. He therefore invited the government to make animal-free medical research “the final gift, after gold, frankincense and myrrh, to both kingdoms represented by the nativity.”

“both kingdoms”, because human-centred research would be a boon as valuable to humans as to the other animals. And that image of co-existence in the stable is also a reminder that although David Amess commonly spoke about ‘animal welfare’, he was aiming at something much more elementary. On 19 January of this year, he led an ‘adjournment debate’ (an opportunity for backbench MPs to direct government attention to a matter of concern) on the difficulties which animal charities have been experiencing as a result of Covid-19. “This pandemic,” he told the House, “may be all about our relationship with animals.” It should therefore “prompt a much-needed reconsideration of our relationship with animals . . . a new vision.” It was this vision which he hoped might be discussed in the general debate which, just before the autumn recess on 23 September, he urged the government to schedule in acknowledgement of World Animal Day this year. That was his last appearance in the proceedings of the House.

But certainly David Amess was there in spirit on Monday afternoon last week (25 October) when there were two separate but concurrent debates on animal themes. One of them was the second reading of the government’s Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill, the legislation that should at last put an end, among other abuses, to the live exporting of farm animals. The other (held in Westminster Hall) was titled ‘Animal Testing’, and had been occasioned by a parliamentary e-petition calling for the abolition of animals in laboratory research – a petition whose 236,000 signatures had far exceeded the number required to trigger such a debate. In both these debates, at the start and finish and indeed throughout, Amess was spoken of with more than ordinary ceremony. It’s clear that MPs really did like and admire “our late dearly loved colleague from Southend West”.

Sir David Amess MP of the month - web image

In the case of the Westminster Hall debate, the theme was one whose importance he had especially urged upon the government over many years (he had entered parliament in 1983) and in many different ways: on committees, in speeches, in early day motions, at parliamentary receptions on the subject (like the one he’s pictured introducing for Cruelty Free International). The debate itself had been postponed for a week, because the original timing had been taken up with tributes to David Amess in the Commons and then a service of remembrance in St Margaret’s Church across the road. MPs had therefore had time to re-compose their speeches. Not only the many reiterated tributes but, I would say, a more than usually passionate statement of the case against animal research was the consequence of that.

Notably, the concept of animal rights, which has tended in the past to startle and even enrage MPs, had made its way into the thought and language. The debate was opened by Martyn Day (MP for Linlithgow and East Falkirk), who said that “animals, as sentient beings, deserve the same consideration as humans, and have the right not to suffer at our hands.” Can the case be put more absolutely than that? Fleur Anderson (Putney), described herself, perhaps with more passion than exactitude, as a “very committed animal rights activist”. A different but also very important principle was asserted by Ruth Jones (Newport), who said that MPs had duties not just to their human constituents: “we also have a responsibility to our natural world, wildlife and animals.” Not that the two duties are separate, for as another speaker had observed, many and perhaps all MPs receive more mail about animal concerns than about any other topic. This debate, said Ruth Jones, should help them to decide “what we can do to keep our animals safe”. She wasn’t talking about pet animals, but about all the animals an MP might represent, including those favoured for research.

Perhaps most significantly of all, there was the suggestion that the 1986 Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, with all its various accretions of statutory instruments and Home Office guidance, the whole bundle so often eulogized by ministers and research scientists, should cease to be regarded as the last progressive word on this subject. Fleur Anderson argued that animal research should have been part of the debate on the Kept Animals Bill in the main chamber of the House. In fact the same point was being made there, that the Bill should be revised to bring laboratory animals too into the special protections being prepared for those others (livestock, puppies, primates as pets, and zoo animals). The implication was that the essential principle of British law on animals in research since 1876 – that such animals were to be excepted from other legislation against cruelty (as they are, for instance, from the Animal Welfare Act of 2006) – should at last be discarded.

In accordance with the habit of eulogy mentioned in the previous paragraph, the government’s original response to the e-petition had referred to the “robust regulations” which protected animals from unnecessary or unethical experimentation. Martyn Day now commented on this phrase: “I can think of many words to describe regulation that allows factory-farmed puppies [he was evidently thinking of the beagle puppies bred at MBR Acres] to be daily force-fed chemicals directly into their stomachs for up to 90 days with no pain relief or anaesthetic, but ‘robust’ certainly is not one of them.” He then took the 1986 Act’s efforts to promote so-called ‘alternatives’ to animals and turned it more than inside out: the Act should be amended to “remove animal experimentation as an ‘alternative’ in scientific procedures”. In short, the 1986 Act should scrap itself.

The two debates on Monday of last week occupied together about four and a half hours. It’s true that neither of the two debates was well-attended (Westminster Hall debates rarely are). And ‘debate’ is rather a misnomer for these formal events anyway. Mostly, the contributions consist in the reading aloud of prepared speeches, with therefore a great deal of wearisome overlap. Interventions there are, but brief and usually not able nor even intended to divert the flow of a prepared speech. This is the ordinary House style, very unlike the pugilism of the more celebrated Prime Minister’s Questions: so much the better, no doubt, but then, however powerful individual contributions may be, the net impression is of business completed. This was indeed a frequent complaint of Sir David’s, that good and agreed intentions were producing no practical results.

Still, Parliament is that narrow strait through which animal ethics has to pass on its way from ideology to the desired condition of national fixture. David Amess made the best of it, and in his long political career, always as a backbencher, he achieved a great deal for animals. And in the wretched circumstances of his death, he seems to have made a last gift to them of his popularity in the House. For not just were those many vehement speeches delivered with him in mind; there was more generally a strong feeling that the House owed it to him to accomplish something definite, much as another of his long-pursued ambitions, city status for Southend, was granted post-mortem, or indeed as Vivienne was elected Dog of the Year. Winding up the second reading of the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill, the Minister of State at Defra, Victoria Prentis, quoted some words spoken by David Amess about live exports, and lastly said “I commend the Bill, in his name, to the House.” I hope that his name and example may have likewise persuaded the House to act upon the public wish, expressed in that e-petition, to see an end to vivisection.

Notes and references

The Westminster Dog of the Year event is reported by the BBC here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-essex-59076946

Quotations from speeches come from Hansard’s records for the relevant days and occasions, accessible from its home page: https://hansard.parliament.uk/.

Thus transcripts of the two debates of 25 October can be found here: https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2021-10-25/debates/486708F3-E5DE-4121-B9E0-F146AFF73031/AnimalTesting  and https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2021-10-25/debates/58F30AB3-1785-491F-B9ED-0DDD739F64D8/AnimalWelfare(KeptAnimals)Bill The debate on wildlife crime took place on 20 March 2019. Other debates are dated in the text, I hope.

The e-petition debated on 25 October can be read here: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/581641. The debate also incorporated a separate e-petition on the same subject: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/590216

One of the current Early Day Motions tabled (i.e. put forward for others to sign) by David Amess is no.256, ‘Accelerating human relevant life sciences in the UK’, which can be read here: https://edm.parliament.uk/early-day-motion/56714 Another important EDM to which he is a signatory is no.175, ‘Public scientific hearing on animal experiments’, here: https://edm.parliament.uk/early-day-motion/58611/public-scientific-hearing-on-animal-experiments . A good way of drawing your MP’s attention to the subject is to invite him or her to sign these EDMs or, if they already have signed, to thank them for doing so.

In his book Ayes and Ears: a Survivor’s Guide to Westminster (2020), David Amess describes the workings and failings of the place, his own experience of becoming an MP, and his efforts to get things done in the House of Commons. The book is published by Luath Press, but seems to be out of print at present.

The photograph of sir David Amess shows him speaking at a parliamentary reception which he hosted for Cruelty Free International in 2015 (image used courtesy of CFI).

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