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The devil is in the detail: A less than warm reception from our legal team to the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill

By A-law’s Senior Policy Team

Whilst we acknowledge the symbolic importance of recognising animal sentience in law, the real importance of this legislation (which is intended to replace Article 13, Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union) is in how to discharge the duty to take into account the welfare needs of animals as sentient beings when formulating and implementing Government policy.

We welcome that legislation will recognise the need to consider animal welfare as part of policymaking across all policy areas, including international trade, justice, home affairs/policing, and education, not just the areas DEFRA is responsible for. And we are pleased that this Bill is complemented by specific policy proposals and other recent and proposed legislation, in particular on live exports, sentencing for animal welfare offences, microchipping of cats, and dog breeding.

However, we have the following concerns about this bill:

  • The duty to have regard to the welfare needs of animals only applies to ”sentient animals”, defined as vertebrates. This excludes all invertebrates, meaning that a whole swathe of wildlife will be excluded from scope including octopus, lobsters, and other crustaceans.
  • The bill does not propose a prospective duty upon the Minister to take into account the welfare needs of animals when making policy. The only duty proposed by the bill is to report to Parliament upon receipt of a report from the sentience committee – a retrospective duty only.
  • There is no indication that the sentience committee will be independent of DEFRA. There is no schedule setting out the body’s constitution and no indication that there will be an open appointment process or that the membership will be made up of people with scientific, legal, and animal welfare policy expertise. This falls short of the standard set by the Scottish Animal Welfare Commission.

Indeed, there is no duty upon the sentience committee to do anything, with a complete discretion as to when and how to exercise any powers.

For this new legislation to have practical impact, the UK Government must commit to the following:

  • ensuring that the new ‘Committee’ is genuinely independent and composed of experts in animal welfare science, law, and policy – and not industry ‘stakeholders’ or lobbyists representing particular interest groups;
  • ensuring that the Committee is adequately resourced (e.g. by having its own secretariat) and can commission scientific reports and access independent sources of expertise;
  • ensuring that the Committee reports at least annually on the extent to which the UK Government is, as a whole, putting animal welfare at the heart of the policy-making process across all relevant areas of policy, assessing the impacts of proposed policies on sentient animals, and seeking to mitigate negative impacts.

Without these assurances and protocols, the Government’s ability to fulfill this duty – to regard animal welfare in policy-making – will be at great risk.

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