Recognizing animal sentience is part of an “Action Plan for Animal Welfare” yet to be written into draft bills, let alone passed by Parliament
LONDON, U.K.––A week-plus after the Conservative government of the United Kingdom introduced an “Action Plan for Animal Welfare,” much of the animal welfare sector worldwide has already declared “victory,” with the major political battles all still ahead.
George Eustice, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, pledged in a lengthy and detailed addenda to the Queen’s Speech opening the current Parliamentary session that Britain under a strong Conservative majority in both houses of Parliament will achieve “the highest standards of animal welfare.”
Eustice outlined ideas that he hopes to incorporate into a Kept Animals Bill, an Animals Abroad Bill, and an Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill, all expanding the scope of the Animal Welfare Act 2006.
The proposed legislation would initially apply only within England.
Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have constitutional authority to adopt and enforce their own animal welfare laws, but historically have tended to harmonize legislation with that of England.
But does Eustice have the votes?
But whether Eustice actually has the votes to pass any of his proposed legislation remains to be tested.
On the one hand, the Conservative Party holds 365 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons, along with 259 of the 794 members of the House of Lords.
The Lords’ legislative role is largely advisory and ceremonial, since the Lords can delay legislation approved by the House of Commons for up to two years, but cannot block it altogether.
On the other hand, several consecutive Parliamentary sessions have featured Conservative governments promising legislation on a variety of animal welfare topics, much of which has yet to be introduced, let alone advanced to passage.
Recalled In Focus writer Edward Scott on May 6, 2021, five days before Eustice actually unveiled his “Action Plan for Animal Welfare” to Parliament, “The 2019 Conservative Party manifesto included a commitment to reform U.K. agriculture and improve animal welfare,” partially fulfilled by the Agriculture Act 2020 and an Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill due to take effect on June 29, 2021.
“The Conservative Party’s 2019 manifesto included a commitment to introduce new laws on the recognition of animal sentience,” Scott wrote.
“In its briefing on the 2019 Queen’s Speech, the Government said that animal sentience provisions would be included in its Animal Welfare Bill. Specifically, this bill would require the Government to take account of animal sentience in its policy decisions and the implementation of policy. The Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill the government supported did not include these measures,” but the Conservative government “stated new laws on animal sentience would be introduced as soon as parliamentary time allows,” Smith reminded.
“The Conservative Party’s 2019 manifesto committed to ending excessively long journeys for live animals to slaughter and fattening,” Scott continued.
“In December 2020, the Government opened a consultation on proposals to ban the export of live animals for rearing and slaughter from England and Wales.
“During the same month, in his evidence session with the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, George Eustice said he anticipated bringing forward legislation by the end of 2021. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee is currently conducting an ongoing inquiry on moving animals across borders.”
Perhaps most problematic for Eustice’s proposed “Action Plan for Animal Welfare,” his own Conservative Party has a long history of alliance with the Countryside Alliance, a political pressure group formed in 1997 in opposition to proposed legislation which eventually became the Hunting Act of 2004.
Introduced by the Labour Party, the Hunting Act of 2004 banned traditional fox hunting after January 1, 2005, but did not prohibit all use of dogs to flush prey for pursuit by hunters either on horseback or afoot.
A variety of legal loopholes built into the Hunting Act of 2004, partially to placate Conservative opponents, has allowed most fox hunting to continue, with only cosmetic changes.
Boris & Theresa
The Countryside Alliance since then has morphed into general defense of blood sports, shooting, and animal agriculture, albeit still focused on seeking repeal of the Hunting Act.
Both current prime minister Boris Johnson and former Conservative prime minister Theresa May, in office from 2016 to 2019, principle author of the British exit from the European Union, and still a member of the House of Commons, have written and spoken in opposition to the Hunting Act.
However, Johnson in 2019, responding to a question from Daily Telegraph chief political correspondent Christopher Hope, said “We will certainly not be bringing back fox hunting. That’s absolutely inconceivable.”
This appears to have emboldened Eustice, whose legislative promises on May 11, 2021 actually went beyond the stated ambitions of many leading British animal welfare organizations, including the Royal SPCA.
“We are a nation of animal lovers”
Began Eustice, after Queen Elizabeth II delivered the Queen’s Speech itself, “We are a nation of animal lovers. The U.K. was the first country in the world to pass legislation to protect animals in 1822 with the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act. We built on this to improve conditions related to slaughterhouses in 1875, and then passed the landmark Protection of Animals Act in 1911. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 introduced a robust framework and powers for protecting all kept animals in England and Wales.
“Since 2010,” Eustice said, “we have achieved remarkable things in animal welfare. On farms we introduced new regulations for minimum standards for meat chickens, banned the use of conventional battery cages for laying hens, and made closed circuit television [supervision] mandatory in slaughterhouses in England.
“For pets,” Eustice reminded, “microchipping became mandatory for dogs in 2015, we modernized our licensing system for a range of activities such as dog breeding and pet sales, we have protected service animals via Finn’s Law,” which prohibited a plea of self-defense by persons accused of killing or injuring police dogs, “and banned the commercial third-party sales of puppies and kittens.”
“In 2019,” Eustice mentioned, “our Wild Animals in Circuses Act became law,” prohibiting the already limited use of wildlife in traveling circuses in Britain.
“Opportunity to do things better”
“Our departure from the European Union has provided us with an opportunity to do things better,” Eustice said, repeating a frequent Conservative theme since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in 2016.
“We can take action to ban the live exports of animals for slaughter and fattening, take forward legislation on puppy smuggling, and now we can take a more assertive role on the world stage,” Eustice declared.
“We have retaken our independent seat at the World Trade Organization,” Eustice emphasized, stating intent to “press for WTO rules to treat animal welfare criteria as a key consideration in trade discussions.
Delivering on 2017 promise?
“We are implementing the Ivory Act this year to ban dealing in elephant ivory,” Eustice said, referencing legislation promised by Theresa May in 2017 but not yet delivered, “and we plan to consult on extending the Ivory Act to other species later this year.
“We will deliver on our 2019 Manifesto Commitment to ban the import of hunting trophies from endangered animals abroad,” Eustice said, “by bringing forward legislation to ensure U.K. imports and exports of hunting trophies are not threatening the conservation status of species abroad.”
Eustice further pledged to “undertake significant work on marine biodiversity and conservation,” through entities established by the United Nations, including Regional Fisheries Management Organizations, the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
Animal sentience: formed a committee
Eustice recalled that, “The U.K. was one of the key members that lobbied for the recognition of animal sentience in Article 13 of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009. The U.K.’s Animal Welfare Act of 2006 recognized in law that animals can feel pain and suffering.”
Now, promised Eustice, “Explicitly recognizing and enshrining animals as sentient beings in law will be at the very heart of central government decision making going forward.”
Specifically, Eustice said, “We will make sure government ministers are held accountable to Parliament for the way they take animal welfare into account when making policy decisions. This includes creating an Animal Sentience Committee to look at and report on government decisions.”
Decapod crustaceans and cephalopods
Forming a committee is a traditional political ploy for avoiding actually taking action, but two days later, on May 13, 2021, life peer Lord Peter Goldsmith of Richmond Park introduced “A Bill to make provision for an Animal Sentience Committee with functions relating to the effect of government policy on the welfare of animals as sentient beings.”
Approved on first reading, the Goldsmith bill is still several steps from reaching the House of Commons, where it will have to pass three readings, review by the Commons committee for the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, and consideration of whatever amendments are offered by members of the House of Commons, before it can receive final passage and be forwarded to the Queen to receive Royal Assent, the last stage before British legislation takes effect.
Eustice’s next words, after introducing his proposal to form the Animal Sentience Committee, were “We have commissioned research into the sentience of decapod crustaceans and cephalopods, and, in light of the findings, we will consider further protections.”
“Decapod crustaceans” and “cephalopods” include lobsters, crabs, crayfish, octopi, and squid.
What does this signal?
Robert Elwood of the School of Biological Sciences at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and other United Kingdom-based scientists have led the world in establishing recognition of the sentience and intelligence of decapod crustaceans and cephalopods, but there has not been a previous hint of their findings becoming enshrined in anti-cruelty law.
Neither has this been a stated goal of animal rights and welfare organizations other than Scotland-based Advocates for Animals.
That Eustice gave decapod crustaceans and cephalopods equal billing with holding government ministers accountable to Parliament might indicate either deep sincerity in his many proposals, or that he does not actually expect most of them to advance.
Certainly the plight of decapod crustaceans and cephalopods, despite their capacity to suffer, is unlikely to swing the next British parliamentary election, not due until 2024.
Eustice claimed credit for the Conservative government for passing an Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill, which “means that the maximum prison sentence for animal cruelty will be raised from six months to five years” after June 29, 2021.
Eustice directly challenged Countryside Alliance influence within the Conservative Party by mentioning that, “We are considering legislation to introduce a close season for brown hares and year-round protection for the small population of mountain hares in England.
“We will also bring in legislation to crack down on the illegal practice of hare coursing,” Eustice promised. “Although hare coursing is prohibited under the Hunting Act, it remains a serious problem,” which “As well as being an important animal welfare issue, causes serious harm in rural communities through associated criminality.”
In addition, Eustice said the Conservative government would “investigate restricting the use and/or sale of lead ammunition over all environments,” since “Research suggests up to 100,000 wildfowl die each year [in the U.K.] due to lead poisoning from spent gunshot,” and would “launch a call for evidence on the use of snares.”
The Countryside Alliance responded by reminding media that, “In the five General Elections since the Hunting Act came into force, the Labour party has been routed from the countryside, culminating in its defeats in rural constituencies across the country in 2019.”
Countered Hunt Saboteurs Association spokesperson Lee Moon, to ITV News: “This is them being honest. They are in deep trouble. They’re clearly feeling abandoned by the Conservative Party. Hunting became a toxic issue for the Conservative Party. They [the Countryside Alliance] lack money, lack people, and lack influential supporters anymore.”
Asked specifically whether his proposal to recognize animal sentience would affect hunting, fishing or road-building projects which might disturb habitats, Eustice told Joseph Lee and Claire Marshall of BBC News that the recognition of animal sentience was “much more applicable” to pets and livestock than wildlife.
Sharks & elephants
Eustice went on to pledge “legislation to ban the import and export of detached shark fins,” reinforcing a European Union law that has had effect in the U.K. since 2003; “to prohibit primates as pets and potentially other animals”; “to improve current requirements applying to zoos, including in relation to their conservation work”; and to “ban the advertising and offering for sale” within the U.K. “of specific, unacceptable practices abroad.
“Our intention is that this will steer tourists towards visiting attractions that involve animals being cared for and treated properly,” Eustice said, citing as example that “animals such as Asian elephants may be subjected to cruel and brutal training practices to ensure their obedience.”
Commitments to “investigate” and “study”
Most of Eustice’s statements, however, consisted of commitments to investigate and study animal welfare problems, not to take specific action.
For instance, Eustice mentioned, “Fur farming has been banned on ethical grounds in England and Wales since 2000, and since 2002 in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Whilst there are existing import restrictions on seal, cat and dog fur, it is still possible to import other fur from abroad, so we will explore potential action in this area.
“We will also look to restrict the use of glue traps as a means of pest control to help make sure rodents are dispatched in a humane manner,” Eustice said.
“The production of foie gras by force feeding is already illegal in the U.K.,” Eustice continued, adding “we are committed to building a clear evidence base to inform decisions on banning the import or sale of foie gras and other products derived from low-welfare systems.”
Boasted Eustice, “We have a strong track record for raising the bar when it comes to farm animal welfare standards, such as banning battery cages for laying hens, sow stalls for pigs and veal crates for calves. We are currently considering the case for introducing further reforms, on areas such as the use of farrowing crates for pigs and cages for laying hens, working with industry,” Eustice qualified, to implement an ‘Animal Health and Welfare Pathway,’ which will launch in 2022.”
Eustice promised that the Conservative government “will support livestock farmers financially to pay for health and welfare enhancements that are valued by the public and not currently delivered sufficiently by the market or through existing regulatory standards.”
Eustice did not explain where the money for such subsidies would come from.
But Eustice did mention “exploring complementary market interventions that could sit alongside labelling reforms to stimulate market demand for higher welfare products. For example, we are looking at animal welfare in our update to the Government Buying Standards for Food & Catering Services.”
Further, Eustice said, “We will be considering what further welfare at slaughter improvements should be made.
National Farmers’ Union objects
National Farmers’ Union deputy president Stuart Roberts objected to Joseph Lee and Claire Marshall of BBC News that, as Lee and Marshall summarized, “There is no legal guarantee that food from animals reared abroad [and imported into Britain] will have been produced to high animal-welfare standards” matching those of the United Kingdom.
“Last year,” Lee and Marshall recalled, “ministers controversially voted against a House of Lords amendment which would have blocked imports that didn’t meet welfare and food safety standards in the UK. It will now depend on post-Brexit [the exit of Britain from the European Union] trade deals with countries such as the U.S., where cows are routinely treated with hormones and chickens are washed with chlorine – which is illegal here.”
Pointed out Roberts, “At the moment we are negotiating a trade deal with Australia, where you can have journey times for animals in excess of 24 hours without access to food or water. We cannot increase standards here, and at the same time not apply the same criteria to imports. It’s just hypocrisy.”
Cracking down on bogus “rescue” imports
The trade arrangements that Eustice said most about pertained to dogs and cats.
“We will legislate to reduce the number of pet dogs, cats and ferrets that can be moved under the pet travel rules which apply to non-commercial movements,” Eustice pledged.
“This will prevent unscrupulous traders from exploiting our pet travel rules,” Eustice explained, referencing so-called “rescues” that actually operate on a commercial scale as brokers for puppies either collected in eastern Europe, or––increasingly often––bred to order.
Eustice also promised to “increase the minimum age that dogs can be non-commercially moved or commercially imported into Great Britain, restrict the ability of unscrupulous traders to move heavily pregnant dogs into Great Britain both commercially and non-commercially,” and prohibit the importation and non-commercial movement of dogs into Great Britain that have been subject to low welfare practices, such as ear cropping or tail docking, in line with our domestic legislation on these practices.”
Further, Eustice said, “We will crack down on pet theft,” by forming “a task force to tackle this issue.
“We will introduce compulsory cat microchipping to ensure lost or stolen cats can be reunited with their owners as quickly as possible,” Eustice continued, parallel to the 2016 legislation requiring that dogs be microchipped.”
Lee and Marshall of BBC News reported that about 90% of the British dog population are already microchipped, and about 70% of cats, both far more than the highest estimates of microchipping in the U.S., where any proposal to mandate microchipping either dogs or cats tends to be seen as a government intrusion.
Eustice said the Conservative government would, in addition, “pursue the licensing of animal sanctuaries, rescue and rehoming centres including for cats, dogs and horses; consider changes to equine identification and traceability to improve biosecurity and animal welfare; ban remote controlled electronic training collars; consider further protections for racing greyhounds; ensure the horse racing sector addresses key animal welfare issues such as fatality levels”; and ”continue to commit to maintaining high standards of protection where procedures are undertaken on live animals for scientific or educational purposes.”
Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 & Staffordshire exemption
Eustice only in passing addressed what many United Kingdom residents would consider the most urgent of animal issues directly affecting them: explosive proliferation of pit bulls, nominally prohibited under the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, but mostly bred, sold, and rehomed through the official pretense that a “Staffordshire” is not a pit bull.
Of the 38 fatal dog attacks occurring in the United Kingdom since 2007, 33 of them coming since 2010, 18 were inflicted by “Staffordshires.” Twelve fatalities were inflicted by pit bulls who were acknowledged as such. Mastiffs, including Rottweilers, were involved in six fatal attacks.
The only other dogs involved were one German shepherd, one Malamute, and two Jack Russell terriers.
Eustice acknowledged that “Dog attacks on livestock are a serious and growing concern to rural communities, police forces and farmers. To address this,” Eustice said, “we will legislate to ensure that new powers are available to the police so they can respond to the most serious incidents of livestock worrying.”
Otherwise, Eustice said only that the Conservative government would “ensure that dangerous dogs legislation continues to provide effective public safety controls.”
To what extent Eustice is actually committed to seeking passage of his “Action Plan for Animal Welfare” may be questioned.
In September 2020, for instance, Eustice defended the extension of badger culling to “eleven new areas of England on top of the 33 where it has already taken place,” wrote Times of London science editor Tom Whipple.
“The expansion of the scheme, which it is predicted will result in about 70,000 badgers being killed, comes despite the government’s pledge to move away from culling as a way of tackling tuberculosis in cattle,” Whipple noted.
The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs has “announced plans to trial a TB vaccination in livestock, with a goal of deploying it within five years,” reminded Whipple. “This had led wildlife campaigners to hope that the controversial cull would be phased out. However, Eustice said that until the vaccine arrived, the cull is necessary.”
More than 102,000 badgers had already been culled under the Conservative government, under pressure from the National Farmers Union, despite scientific evidence mounting for decades that culling badgers as suspected carriers actually accomplishes little or nothing against the spread of bovine tuberculosis.