Members of Parliament Talk Sentience

The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill was discussed in this blog during its passage through the House of Lords last October. Now it has arrived at the House of Commons, where it had its Second Reading on the afternoon of 18 January, led by George Eustice, the Secretary of State for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). None of the amendments proposed in the Lords have been successful, but the government itself has amended the Bill to include, in its protective scope, cephalopods (octopus, squid, cuttlefish) and decapods (crabs, lobsters, crayfish). So after the many hours of attention given to the Bill in the House of Lords, here are nearly three more hours of debate to open its career in the Commons (Committee Stage, Report Stage, and Third Reading are yet to come). Meanwhile there has been a steady accumulation of published material, both official and factional, to inform, persuade, or frighten these legislators and other interested parties.

The background to this Bill is that, among all the EU laws and regulations which were carried over into UK law during Brexit, the government strangely left out the 2007 Lisbon Treaty’s classification of animals as “sentient beings”. There was justifiable puzzlement and protest about this at the time. But whatever may have been the reason, it now seems a most happy oversight, productive of all this extra attention to the animal subject. And the brevity of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill, which wisely (but controversially) refrains from defining either ‘sentience’ or the scope of the Animal Sentience Committee created to speak for the animals possessing it, means that almost no aspect or principle of animal welfare can be considered irrelevant to the debate. The distresses of farm animals, hunted animals, exhibits in zoos, pets, and lab animals were all spoken of in the House of Commons, sometimes in angry detail.

It was, then, a comprehensive symposium on the subject, and naturally prompted the summarizing question, “what we want our relationship with the animal kingdom to be” (Kerry McCarthy). Or as the Scottish MP Deidre Brock said at the end of her speech, “The more we understand animals’ sentience, capabilities and emotions, the more the idea of granting rights to animals is worth taking seriously and urgently.” Of course that’s an idea already taken seriously and urgently far and wide outside Parliament, but hitherto it has found very little support inside, has indeed been regarded by many as dangerous. The title of the Bill itself reflects the way MPs have always wished to deal with the subject: that is, as a welfare matter, concessions made in their kindness by a “nation of animal-lovers”. So it’s a most promising sign that Deidre Brock’s words aroused no commotion, no cries of “Oh!” (the official way of recording non-verbal remonstrations in parliamentary debate).

In keeping with this strong (though certainly not unanimous) wish to make the Bill a really progressive one, several speakers criticized the wording of the Animal Sentience Committee’s remit, which is to ensure that policies developed by government departments shall pay “all due regard to the ways in which the policy might have an adverse effect on the welfare of animals as sentient beings.” The case was well put by Luke Pollard:

It is quite a dated concept to use the word ‘adverse’, with its negative connotation in respect of animal welfare. It suggests that the job of animal welfare legislation is just to stop humans doing bad things to animals. It fails to consider the welfare agenda of the 21st century: what is a life well lived for an animal?

That last is a radical question, important not just for its ethical force but also because it’s a question which might be asked with equal sense ‘for a human’ – or more simply asked for any “sentient being”. It’s a reminder, then, of the power of that formulation being introduced to UK law in this Bill, erasing as it does the border which we habitually impute between humans and ‘animals’. As sentient beings, we’re all of one kind. (More importantly, as lives we are, but I’m afraid that animals not yet regarded as sentient, but certainly alive and with a keen wish to go on living, have no part in this Bill.)

That speech given by Luke Pollard was a highlight of the Commons debate. Even an important debate with strongly opposing views, as this one was (though it was quite poorly attended), can take the shine off its subject with a succession of talking or rather reading heads, working through their print-outs, while other MPs fiddle with their smart-phones in the background. Pollard did have papers in hand, but for brief prompts only, it seemed. He was fully animated as he spoke, as a reader-aloud cannot be. He smiled engagingly and sometimes mockingly, obviously enjoying the business of public speaking, as well as that of putting something that mattered right.

To return to the substance of the Bill: its opponents in the debate complained that although the Bill does specify the animals being offered its protection – namely, vertebrates and the marine creatures just now added – it does not limit their claims in any other way. Here indeed is another happy result of not transposing the Lisbon Treaty’s version. For that Treaty not only specified the areas of government action where animal sentience was to be respected; it also allowed this obligation to be trumped by “the legislative or administrative provisions and customs of the Member States relating in particular to religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage” (for instance, ritual slaughter or bull-fighting). In neither of these ways does the UK Bill limit the scope of the Animal Sentience Committee’s attentions.

Accordingly, one of the interventions during the Secretary of State’s opening speech to the House was made in order to ask him, “Can my right honourable Friend confirm whether the Bill as drafted contains birds?” To this, George Eustice replied, with some slight impatience,

The Bill does include birds, since they are vertebrates, and it includes fish, since they are vertebrates. I point out that those particular animals have been recognized in our law as sentient since at least 1911.

But the questioner, Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, will hardly have been satisfied by this historical reference. That 1911 Protection of Animals Act was concerned with domestic or captive animals only, and was signed into law by one of Britain’s most sanguinary monarchs in his relations to the animal kingdom: that almost crazed bird-blaster, King George V. There was no question in 1911 of the rights of game-birds, except that one should not shoot them when they’re sitting down, but there is now. Sir Geoffrey is Vice-President of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, an organisation whose comical name neatly summarizes an attitude to wild animals which the Sentience Bill at last challenges: i.e. that provided the supply of them is kept up (the BASC calls it “sustainable shooting”), our duties towards them are satisfied. The proposed Act will obtain for these birds proper attention as sentient individuals rather than as conserved numbers, and it will do so without any Lisbon-style concessions to what Kerry McCarthy called “the right to be cruel to animals just because that has been traditional in this country”.

Fishing interests have similarly been feeling uneasy about the Bill. The Angling Trade Association (“the voice of the British tackle industry”) spoke up during the period of consultation for the Bill, not without good reason. The government body responsible for waterways and fishing is the Defra’s own Environment Agency, whose policy on fishing as a sport may be judged from its recent “let’s get one million to fish” campaign. Its promotion of “the wellbeing benefits that the sport has to offer” may be good for the tackle industry, but clearly hasn’t taken fish-sentience into account. True, the Agency is not itself a government department; it may therefore not be directly liable to the Sentience Committee’s attention (Luke Pollard wants an extension of the Committee’s purview to include non-departmental public bodies like the Agency, and that surely will come). But the Agency’s policy is presumably a part of Defra’s own more general objectives, and may therefore be challenged as such by the Committee. And we know that fish are sentient; George Eustice himself has just told us so.

Before briefly considering the concerns of animal research groups, we should notice with gratitude one more point about the term sentience. It’s a good, clear, unspoiled word. Although (as MPs noted) it comes from the Latin word sentire, ‘to feel’, it’s a larger and less humanized word than ‘feelings’. See how the ramifications of that word are exploited in this angry warning against the Bill by Sir Bill Wiggin:

All this will do is prevent things. Want to plant more trees, build more houses, improve infrastructure, or open a new power station? None of that will be straightforward, just in case we might hurt the feelings of a mouse or a cuttlefish in the process.

In addition, sentience contains some idea of a state of awareness quite independent of good or bad emotion (“a level of conscious awareness”, the MP and vet Neil Hudson suggested, and he ought to know). It therefore implies that merely the presence of such an animal must be taken into account, as it naturally would be in the case of a human. What else it may imply is – so the Secretary of State insisted – for the Committee to discover as experience and science inform it. As I’ve said, this is, or ought to prove to be, a progressive law.

The last distinct topic in the debate was animal research. Jo Churchill, winding up the debate as Under-Secretary of State at Defra (she was wearing – symbolically, I hope – a fine dragonfly brooch), was asked to comment on the use of non-human primates in defence research. Although she did not comply, it’s significant that this theme did get attention during the afternoon. Since the 1876 Cruelty to Animals Act, lab animals have been excepted from other welfare law – as they are excepted, for instance, from the 2006 Animal Welfare Act. But perhaps things are changing now. Certainly the Bill entitles the proposed Animal Sentience Committee to publish comment on any government policy that “is being or has been formulated or implemented”: policy not legislation, then, but of course policy is very commonly a continuation or even a consequence of existing law. A huge library of Home Office advice and other directions has been piling up on the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act (ASPA) since it became law in 1986. Such secondary material may well become subject to the Committee’s attention.

At any rate, defenders of animal research seem to fear so. Among the amendments attempted during the Bill’s passage through the House of Lords was one proposed by Lord Moylan which would have inserted, after that phrase “formulated or implemented”, the words “other than a policy intended to advance the understanding of medical science.” The organisation Understanding Animal Research (UAR) has been similarly suspicious of the Bill. In its submission to the consultation, it proposed a strictly negative definition of sentience, as the ability and intention to escape adversity, “and, if treated adversely, to demonstrate adverse physiological changes and behavioural suffering”. The onus of proof, it seems, should be on the animal: if it’s not knowingly on the run, or providing evidence of damage, it must be all right. UAR’s  more general warning was the same one put in Lord Moylan’s amendment (which may indeed have been proposed with UAR advice): “It is essential to the scientific community, and to potential medical progress, that any new animal welfare legislation does not conflict with, but supports ASPA.”

The fact that shooting, fishing, and research interests, as well as some farming and slaughterhouse businesses, don’t like the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill is evidence of real efficacy in it. Of course the Sentience Committee will not be taking decisions about government policies, only drawing attention to their implications for animals; government ministers will be required to respond to what the Committee says, but not necessarily to act upon it. Besides, the Bill has some way yet to go in the Commons. But the debate on 18 January showed that there’s plentiful parliamentary interest in making a success of it. And then, in case there may have been some wishful-thinking in this post, even the Better Deal for Animals Coalition, specially formed among animal rights groups to secure the recognition of animal sentience in UK law (see illustration), has declared “our strong support for the Animal Sentience Bill”. Surely it must be as good as it seems.  

Better Deal for Animals

Notes and references:

The text of the Bill as it stands at present can be read here:

An account in this blog of the Bill’s reception in the House of Lords was posted on October 4 2021, and can be seen here:

The Hansard text of the Second Reading debate is online here:  The TV record can be viewed here:  Luke Pollard’s speech is at 15.42. The also excellent speech given by Neil Hudson is at 16.21. You’ll notice, as mentioned, that the debate was not well-attended. All the quotations in this post are from the debate, unless otherwise stated and referenced.

A thorough account of the Bill and its fortunes so far was provided to MPs before the Second Reading in this House of Commons Research Briefing:  This includes, on p.6, the text from the Treaty of Lisbon, 2007, which deals with animal sentience and the customs which will be allowed to trump it in the policies of member states.

The shooting and fishing organisations, and the Environment Agency, are quoted from their web-sites.

Lord Moylan’s amendment, with all the others proposed during the Bill’s passage through the Lords, is listed at no.19 here:

Understanding Animal Research’s submission during the period of public consultation can be read here (note that at the time of the consultation, the Bill included provisions to increase sentences for animal cruelty, but these were later separated and are now enacted in the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act, 2021):

The latest commentary on the Bill by the Better Deal for Animals Coalition was published just before the Second Reading in the Commons, and can be read here:

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