Nothing yet on animal sentience in U.K. law
LONDON, U.K.–– “Sentient,” a word seldom used by mass media and little recognized by the public before a much decried vote of the British Parliament on November 15, 2017, is overnight at the center of debate raging throughout the United Kingdom.
Who is sentient? What is sentience? Does the concept apply to dogs? To chickens? To politicians?
How will the U.K. protect animal welfare?
At issue is how, when, and if the Conservative government of the United Kingdom intends to protect animal welfare once the U.K. leaves the European Union.
The Conservative majority in Parliament has been arranging the exit of Britain from the European Union, a process called “Brexit” for short, since a plebiscite of June 23, 2016 mandated that the exit should begin.
ANIMALS 24-7 in a 2016 five-part series outlined the potential consequences of Brexit for animal welfare, but until November 15, 2017 the reality that practically all British legislation protecting animals of every sort will be affected seems not to have hit home to most British citizens.
(Beth Clifton collage ) See also Will U.K. leaving E.U. mean leaving animal welfare behind?, Farmed animals & the Brexit “diet plan,” Farmed animals & money talks, What Brexit means for “pet passports” & lab animals, and Back to The Jungle Book: U.K. wildlife law post-Brexit.)
Filling legal gaps
Completing the Brexit process requires Parliament to pass a long series of amendments to British law to fill gaps in legislation of every sort which have for 44 years been filled by European Union law.
Noting an especially wide gap pertaining to animal welfare, member of Parliament Caroline Lucas, representing the Green Party, moved on November 15, 2017 that “ Obligations and rights contained within the European Union Protocol on animal sentience set out in Article 13 of Title II of the Lisbon Treaty,” the E.U. organizing document, “shall be recognized and available in domestic law on and after exit day, and shall be enforced and followed accordingly.”
Explained Lucas in an accompanying statement, “This new clause seeks to transfer the EU Protocol on animal sentience into U.K. law, so that animals continue to be recognized as sentient beings.”
Parliament & potatoes
In other words, Lucas moved that U.K. law post-Brexit should incorporate recognition that animals are distinct as a class from other living property, for instance a potato, which may lose value if improperly treated but will not in itself suffer.
Lucas’ proposed amendment was not surprisingly defeated along party lines, 313-296. But that was scarcely the end of it. What the Conservative government sought to frame as simply a matter of procedural protocol soon came to be perhaps the hottest of all political hot potatoes for the Brexit framers, with the vote widely perceived as an attempt to roll back the legal protection of animals to the mid-20th century.
From factory farmers to fox hunters, animal use industries were perceived to have been handed a free pass. At the very least, rejecting the incorporation of “sentience” as a concept enshrined in post-Brexit British law looked like an invitation to animal use industries to renegotiate the terms of every restriction put on their activities in any way by European Union law––and perhaps that is exactly what would happen, if the Conservative or “Tory” government could govern unrestrained by public opinion.
What Parliament rejected
The European Union language that Parliament rejected reads in full:
“In formulating and implementing the Union’s agriculture, fisheries, transport, internal market, research and technological development and space policies, the Union and the Member States shall, since animals are sentient beings, pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals, while respecting the legislative or administrative provisions and customs of the Member States relating in particular to religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage.”
The last clause of the European Union language contributed to much of the British cultural anxiety that built momentum in favor of the June 2016 vote to leave the European Union. British voters and taxpayers widely perceived that their money was helping to subsidize Spanish bullfighting, for example, and that European law might trump British legislation meant to discourage curbside slaughter of sheep, goats, and other animals in association with Islamic religious occasions.
“Sentient” goes tabloid
The inclusion of the word “sentient” in European law, meanwhile, had occasioned little notice, if any. Though “sentient” crossed into the English vocabulary from Latin in the 17th century, the concept of “sentience” seldom troubled minds outside of philosophy classrooms and vegan discussion groups.
Following the November 15, 2017 vote, however, Royal SPCA public affairs chief David Bowles took the notice of sentience from the realm of abstract academic discourse to the tabloid media.
“It’s shocking,” fumed Bowles, “that Members of Parliament have given the thumbs down to incorporating animal sentience into post-Brexit U.K. law. This is truly a backward step for animal welfare.”
Sentience “not in Animal Welfare Act”
Tory spokespersons contended that animals in Britain would remain protected by the U.K. Animal Welfare Act 2006.
Countered Bowles, “Animal sentience is never mentioned in the Animal Welfare Act and, crucially, only domestic animals are really covered by the provisions of the Act anyway. Animals in the wild and in laboratories are expressly exempt. It is simply wrong for the Government to claim that the Act protects animal sentience.”
Environment secretary Michael Gove had pledged to “prioritize” animal protection during the Brexit process, but Bowles was skeptical.
“In the European Union,” Bowles said, “we know that the recognition of animals as sentient beings has been effective in improving animal welfare across the region. If the U.K. is to achieve the Environment Secretary’s objective of achieving the highest possible animal welfare post-Brexit, it must do the same.
“Animals are not commodities”
“Animals are not commodities. Any laws impacting on them need to take into account their capacity to suffer. They are sentient beings, with feelings and emotions.
A formal acknowledgement that animals are sentient would send a strong message to politicians to help shape future legislation, ensuring the best protection for animals,” Bowles continued, emphasizing that “as the European Union Withdrawal Bill continues its progress through Parliament, we will once again be urging for this important acknowledgement of animals sentence to be included.
“Since the recognition of animals as sentient beings,” Bowles elaborated, “the European Union has banned the use of barren battery cages [for egg-laying hens], ended animal testing for cosmetics, and prohibited the import of seal products.”
This, Bowles suggested, should be just the beginning of post-Brexit animal welfare law.
900 million farm animals
“More than 900 million farm animals are reared every year in the U.K.,” Bowles reminded, “as well as many millions of fish, and we are working hard to try to improve the lives of as many farm animals as possible. Much like us, farm animals are sentient beings and aware of their feelings and emotions. Their lives matter and more needs to be done to protect their welfare.
“Under E.U. law,” Bowles summed up, “animals are recognized as beings who feel pain and emotions. Eighty percent of current animal welfare legislation comes from the E.U., but after March 2019 [when the Brexit process is scheduled to be done], European law will no longer apply in the United Kingdom. While most E.U. law relating to animals will be automatically brought over into U.K. law,” Bowles hoped, “this will not apply to the recognition of sentience.”
Agreed Compassion In World Farming policy director Nick Palmer, “How can the UK be seen as a leader in animal welfare when the repeal bill fails to guarantee that animals will continue to be regarded as sentient beings? We urge the Government to reintroduce this commitment into the bill.”
Previous Conservative failures
Assessed Andrew Griffin, environment writer for The Independent, “Put simply, what happened is this: Members of Parliament did not vote that animals are not sentient creatures. But neither did they vote for a law that would have recognized them as such. Some claimed the vote showed that the Government didn’t care about animals. Supporters of the Government claimed that it was the result of ‘fake news.’
“The issue is of particular concern to the British public,” wrote Griffin, “and therefore to the government. Two of the most damaging and widely-read stories of the election campaign,” Griffin remembered, “were about the Conservatives’ failure to support the fox hunting and ivory trade bans – so the Government knows how much damage stories about their lack of commitment to animal welfare can do. For those reasons, reaction has been quick, intense and loud, on all sides.”
“Committed to highest standards”
Insisted environment secretary Gove, “This government is committed to the very highest standards of animal welfare. We will make the United Kingdom a world leader in the care and protection of animals.”
“The environment secretary issued a statement to the House of Commons insisting that it was a misconception to say Tory Members of Parliament voted against the idea that animals are sentient and feel pain,” reported Guardian deputy political editor Rowena Mason. “He clarified that the government is now looking at making U.K. law specifically recognize animal sentience.”
Said Gove in a written statement, “The prime minister has made clear that we will strengthen our animal welfare rules. This government will ensure that any necessary changes required to UK law are made in a rigorous and comprehensive way to ensure animal sentience is recognized after we leave the E.U.
“Not the right place”
“The withdrawal bill is not the right place to address this,” Gove insisted. “However, we are considering the right legislative vehicle.”
Added Mason, “Gove also hinted that the U.K. could pursue tougher animal welfare rules after Brexit, including a ban on live animal exports and crackdown on puppy smuggling. He claimed E.U. rules currently prevent the government from imposing such restrictions.”
“Key recognition about to be lost”
Meanwhile, whatever Gove may do on the subjects of sentience and improved post-Brexit animal welfare law has yet to take on tangible form.
In the interim, reminded Compassion In World Farming chief executive Philip J. Lymbery via Facebook, “More than 300 Members of Parliament voted against recognizing animals as sentient beings in U.K. law post-Brexit. Whether the MPs really knew what they were voting against, or whether the public will forgive them, only time will tell.
“There has since been a veritable smokescreen of claims and counter-claims,” Lymbery said, “made in an effort to distract from the main issue: that, come Brexit, a key legal recognition for animals is about to be lost.”