Do prawns have feelings? The answer to this question may soon matter, because if they do, every single activity of government will have to take this into account. The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill, currently before Parliament, sets up a Committee which will check whether Ministers have considered the impact of any proposal they make on the feelings of animals.
This extraordinary measure isn’t an obscure backbench MP’s Bill. Incredibly, it’s Government legislation and a manifesto promise, so it is bound to become law.
Of course, no-one should treat animals badly. We are a nation of animal lovers, and we have always accepted that animals can suffer. The question is why we need a Bill which insists that a legalistic principle of sentience is recognised in everything government does.
We have had animal welfare laws in our country for 200 years, since the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act was introduced. Our animal welfare standards go far beyond the minimums set by the European Union which first introduced this principle of sentience, and they always have.
For most of us, the question of sentience is a simple matter of fact: vertebrates, at least, clearly are sentient, and that is recognised in the body of laws we have already passed. If it was really thought to make a difference, we could follow the example of New Zealand by adding a simple provision to our law to ensure that animal sentience is taken into account when decisions are made.
But the Bill before Parliament goes a lot further than this, and we need to consider carefully important questions that arise from it. A failure to do so could be damaging for future policy making and do little, if anything, to protect animal welfare.
First, we must distinguish clearly between animal rights and animal welfare. Most of us agree wholeheartedly with the principle of animal welfare: that we should treat animals humanely, compassionately and properly.
But the idea that animals have rights which are in some way equal to human rights is much more problematic. Most of us – though not all – also eat animals and probably support their humane use in scientific research. If you really think a sheep has the same rights as you, it’s hard to see how you can eat a lamb chop.
The distinction between animal rights and animal welfare is important when it comes to considering how to design laws affecting wild animals. A domestic animal under our control obviously needs to be watered and fed properly. If we fail to do that, we break the law and can rightly be prosecuted for cruelty.
However, a farmer cannot have responsibility for feeding and watering a wild animal, even on his own land, because it is not under his control. It is only when wild animals are brought under control that they can receive the same type of protection under the law. Of course, legislation to protect wild animals can be necessary, but it has to be different. The doctrine of animal rights is unhelpful in guiding us as to how we should treat animals and how the law should be framed.
Second, we need to advance the protection of animals based on principle and evidence. It’s a wonderful British trait that we all care so strongly about animals, but that can allow sentiment to dominate debate, and that can in turn lead to bad law. The Government pledged this measure because vociferous pressure groups claimed that the sentience measure in EU law would be lost after Brexit. There was a manufactured outcry, with MPs falsely attacked for denying that animals have feelings. Understandably, the Government reacted, but what’s now proposed goes much further than the EU provision. The pendulum is in danger of swinging too far.
Third, the Bill proposes establishing an Animal Sentience Committee, with members appointed by the Government. Who will these people be, and what experience will they have? The Committee will be given the power to report on any government policy. Has the Government really thought through the time, cost, delay and pointless bureaucratic interference that this might lead to? It is one thing for Ministers to be guided by expert advice, but another to hand over decisions to bodies that cannot be held to account.
The principles of sentience are not in dispute. Of course, we should treat animals properly. Of course, we must have laws to ensure this.
But the danger with this legislation is that it will become a vehicle to glue up government with an animal rights agenda that Parliament never intended and at its extreme is, frankly, bonkers.
It could affect crucial activities such as farming and scientific research. There is still time for Ministers to clarify and constrain the powers and remit of the body they are creating. As things stand, the Bill is in danger of becoming a Trojan Horse for an extreme agenda that the Government never intended and will come to regret.