Even before we left the EU, I joined campaigners and other MPs in calling for the Government to recognise animal sentience in UK law, as had been the case under EU law.
The Government could have had this legislation in place, ready to go, as we left the EU, however, they spent years making promises but not legislating.
This was the case until the middle of last year when the Government finally introduced the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill in the House of Lords. I am pleased to say that both the Government and the Opposition support this Bill and have backed its passage through Parliament. Indeed, on 18 January, the Bill passed its Second Reading without the need for a vote.
This bill recognises that non-human vertebrates are sentient. This includes decapod crustaceans, such as lobsters, and cephalopod molluscs, such as octopuses, which were not set to be included originally. I was part of the push for their inclusion, and I am glad that the Government has listened to campaigners and scientists on this issue.
However, there are two parts of the legislation that I am still concerned about and will need to be monitored when the Bill becomes law.
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will appoint the members of the Animal Sentience Committee, which is tasked with scrutinising Ministers’ policy plans and decisions, and publishing a report on whether they are compatible with the recognition of animals as sentient beings.
During the debate on 18 January, the Secretary of State said that these appointments would be made “on the basis of expertise and experience”. It remains to be seen whether this will be the case in practice and whether members of the committee will need to declare any interests that they may have in animal-related industries.
Secondly, Ministers will be held to account through a duty to respond to the committee’s reports by means of a written statement to Parliament, and Parliament must receive such responses within three months.
This is very light accountability. There is no stipulation for Ministers to act upon the reports’ recommendations and they could just dismiss them in their written responses without any repercussions, besides political backlash.
Therefore, whilst I welcome this long-overdue recognition of animal sentience in law and will still support the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill in Parliament, I can assure you that I will continue to advocate for better protections for animal sentience and for this legislation to be strengthened going forward.