18 January 2022
Clifton-Brown calls for new animal sentience law to fairly balance animal welfare with cultural traditions

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown speaks in the Second Reading debate on the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill and calls for medical, scientific, farming, fishing and shooting interests to be represented on the Animal Sentience Committee set up by the Bill and calls for religious rights, cultural traditions and regional heritage to be respected.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con)

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to catch your eye in this important but short debate, on a short and, in my view, unnecessary Bill. Of course we can all accept that animals can suffer and therefore we are obliged to ensure that we maintain our high standards of welfare. That animals can experience pain and suffering has been implicit in British animal law, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State so rightly laid out, since 1835 when Parliament passed the landmark Cruelty to Animals Act. However, the lack of definition in this Bill or use of science to decide whether an animal is sentient is concerning; it even lacks a definition of what sentience means. It is concerning that we should be passing a Bill with such a lack of detail.

There is a huge rural community in this country that is passionate about wildlife and eager to protect the environment and their activities. The Angling Trust and the British Association for Shooting and Conservation—I declare an interest; it is the secretariat for the all-party group on animal welfare and environment which I chair—represent more than 3 million fishing and shooting enthusiasts in the UK. The Bill could deliver another weapon into the hands of litigious animal rights groups that could damage both Government and those who live and work with animals.

Shooting, conservation and angling are highly important for the UK economy. Shooting contributes about £2 billion to GDP and supports the equivalent of 74,000 full-time jobs. Angling is estimated to be worth £4 billion to the UK economy and responsible for upwards of 40,000 jobs.

We need to make sure that the Animal Sentience Committee set up by the Bill does not have any unforeseen or perverse consequences, and that the Bill is not introduced simply as a public relations exercise to meet the demands of activist groups and the tabloids. A sentience committee does not require legislation. It could have been established by the Secretary of State at any time. He has already told us that the members will be Secretary of State appointments, but that covers a multitude of types of people who might be appointed. Perhaps the Minister could give us a little more idea of the type of people who will be appointed to the committee.

According to clause 2(1), the scope of the Bill encompasses:

“When any government policy is being or has been formulated or implemented”.

In other words, it gives huge breadth of remit to the committee. So what will be the committee’s resources in terms of funds and secretariat? Would it not be more sensible to limit its remit to the areas currently covered by the European law on sentience, on which my party’s manifesto said we would legislate?

Will the new committee by statute confuse who advises Ministers on animal welfare when the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs already has an Animal Welfare Committee with a wide remit covering all animals, but not by statute? Will the new sentience committee, which is implemented by statute, be superior to the Animal Welfare Committee, which was established decades ago and works perfectly well? Or will it be a sub-committee of the Animal Welfare Committee? If so, will the Animal Welfare Committee be required to approve its reports before publication? What will be the difference between the remit of the two committees?

There is no requirement in the Bill for the committee to consider the public interest or the legislative or administrative provisions and customs of the UK relating in particular to religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage. In a meat-eating society where vertebrate animals are farmed and hunted for food, and used in scientific and medical research under strict legal limits, the fact that the committee is not required to consider the public interest could lead to a conflict between activist groups and the Government.

Will the Minister therefore balance the requirement to have “all due regard” to animal welfare with a requirement to have regard to the public interest? Can the Minister give an assurance that the medical, scientific, farming, fishing and shooting interests will be represented? This is crucial, because otherwise it is going to breed a great deal of resentment in the rural communities.

There are other ways of recognising sentience in legislation. We could have followed New Zealand’s example and amended the Animal Welfare Act 2006 merely to include sentience. That is all that needed to happen.

Policy and legislation should always be science and evidence-based. It is extraordinary that there is no definition of sentience in the Bill. Even though 80% of the respondents to the Government consultation supported the inclusion of a definition, it still is not there. Instead, clause 5(2) says that the Secretary of State

“may by regulations … bring invertebrates of any description within the meaning of “animal” for the purposes of this Act”.

But there is no requirement to show scientific proof that non-vertebrates are sentient. Philosophers and scientists have been arguing for centuries about which non-vertebrate animals are sentient and what that actually means, and here we have a Bill that does not clarify that debate.

The Bill originated in demands for sentience to be explicitly written into law after Brexit, but it does not contain the safeguards within the EU law on sentience. EU law on sentience is limited and balanced. It applies to agriculture, fisheries, transport, the internal market, research and technological and space policies. Member states—this is a particular part of European law—are required to have

“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.”

I will try to get an amendment included in the Bill—I hope that the Government will support the amendment, which I will table shortly—stating that “the recommendations by the committee must respect the legislative or administrative provisions and customs relating in particular to religious rights, cultural traditions and regional heritage”. I say tactfully to my right hon. Friend that, as that is the wording in European law, I hope very much that he might consider such an amendment, so that we can at least focus the committee’s work, instead of it having the very wide-ranging remit that it now has.

Will the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), give us an assurance that nothing in the Bill will have an impact on activities conducted with all regard to animal welfare within the law? Does she believe, as some do, that sentience confers rights and, if so, what rights are conferred?

In conclusion, clarity, clarity, clarity is required on animal welfare advice in government. I am talking about the composition and remit of the committee, the balance between the public interest and sentience, and assurances that legal activities, such as research, farming and country sports, will not be damaged by the Bill. 

I say to the Secretary of State and the Minister: please could we have an answer to that final question when the Minister sums up?