… Animal sentience has been a key provision in EU law since 2007…
If politicians have any sense they will make animal sentience part of UK law
Helen Browning, The Ecologist (UK)
4th December 2017
Britain is known as a nation of animal lovers. It is the birthplace of Watership Down, Peter Rabbit - and Animal Farm. But the meat, cosmetics and other animal dependent industries are also a large part of the British economy. Until now, EU regulations have improved animal welfare. As the country prepares for Brexit, HELEN BROWNING asks whether animal sentience will remain recognised by UK law.
A narrow majority of MPs rejected the inclusion of animal sentience into UK law as part of our departure from the EU when the issue came to the House of Commons. The decision instigated a wave of public outrage and petitions.
For many people - and I’m one of them - this felt like a big step backwards. Animal sentience has been a key provision in EU law since 2007, when it became a binding article in the Lisbon Treaty.
If the UK ultimately decides to reject the principle of animal sentience, this would undermine the future of farm animal welfare in the UK post-Brexit, and be way out of step with our proud history of going ahead of the pack with regulation to protect farm animals.
Fortunately, however, it seems that government is now stepping up to proactively address the issue in the law and, moreover, it states that it wants to go beyond Article 13’s current legal provisions.
Evidence for animal sentience has been available for over 60 years, and the topic now has over 2,000 studies to its name – from Harry Harlow’s 1959 study of orphaned monkeys with ‘dummy mothers’, to 2012’s Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness.
To be honest, to most people who live alongside animals, this is all jolly good, but also blatantly obvious. I remember the shock of stumbling across Ruth Harrison’s Animal Machines in my school library, and being aghast at the systems that she exposed;.
Growing up on dairy, beef and sheep farm, I had no idea that this was becoming the new reality, especially for pigs and poultry. It also made a profound impact on a wide public, and led to Britain's first farm animal welfare legislation.
People in Britain care enormously about animals and their wellbeing. When we remember the backlash against proposals to sell off our forests - governments beware!
Incentives and funding
Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, has since the House of Commons vote confirmed that he will ensure that animal sentience is included in forthcoming legislation and transferred into UK law.
However, the claims made in Gove’s statement and through DEFRA’s blog on the issue are extraordinarily vague. There are no timelines, and no detailed policies. DEFRA alludes on its blog to legislation that will encompass all animals, both on farms and in the wild.
But what form will such comprehensive legislation take? How does it intend to address animal testing in the cosmetics industry? The abuse of companion animals? CCTV in abattoirs is all well and good, but further clarity is needed as soon as possible, especially on the legal underpinning that is the essential foundation for future welfare policy.
Whilst we await news on how animal sentience will be enshrined into UK law, there are many other policies that ministers should be considering in order to show they’re serious about the UK being a world leader in farm animal welfare.
We’ve identified six key areas for action: setting the ambition that all farm animals should have a ‘good life’ within 10 years; mandatory labelling by method of production; stopping the overuse of antibiotics; incentives and funding for investment in farm infrastructure; the expansion of organic farming; and support for agroforestry.
Farmers struggle ...
Parliamentary motion ...
Right noises ...