Thanks to new legislation, animals will soon be recognised as “sentient beings” in UK law. Sentience is not defined in the new Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill, but it’s typically understood as the ability to feel. Why, you might wonder, does the UK need a law to declare the patently obvious (and scientifically verified) fact that animals have feelings?
Britain previously had “to pay full regard to the welfare requirements” of animals as “sentient beings” when implementing EU policies. Some parliamentarians feared that, in the absence of a similar provision in domestic law, animals would be left in a more perilous position after Brexit.
Two attempts – first by opposition MPs and then the government – failed to include something akin to the EU animal welfare obligation in UK law. Now, four and a half years later, the present bill has passed all parliamentary hurdles and awaits Royal Assent.
So how will the new law change circumstances for animals living in the UK?
What’s in the bill?
What’s interesting about this bill is not that it says animals are sentient, but that it specifies which animals are sentient. In addition to all vertebrate animals (animals with backbones such as mammals, birds and fish), the legislation includes certain invertebrates, including lobsters, crabs and octopuses. This is progress compared with the Animal Welfare Act 2006 of England and Wales, which – along with its Scottish and Northern Irish equivalents – only applies to vertebrates.
The bill also establishes an Animal Sentience Committee, which will report on how government policies affect animal welfare, and can recommend further changes in how those policies are formed and implemented. The secretary of state would need to respond in parliament to these reports within three months of their publication.
The response to the bill has been mixed. Animal welfare campaigners hailed it as “a victorious day for animals”, “groundbreaking legal progress” and “a big step towards recognising the rights of other animals”. Conservative peer Lord Moylan, on the other hand, excoriated the law for contributing to what he called the “profoundly anti-human” agenda of the animal rights movement. Others were more blasé. The Green Party’s Baroness Jones described it as “better than nothing”.
What to expect
What can those who want to see improved legal treatment of animals hope for? The law’s recognition of the sentience of certain invertebrates may lead to more animal-friendly interpretations of currently meagre protections. For example, the law currently prohibits killing invertebrates in ways that cause avoidable suffering. Despite this, lobsters and crabs are routinely boiled alive in seafood restaurants. It may be hoped that, with invertebrate sentience in the spotlight, the limited laws already in place will be better enforced against egregiously cruel practices.
Including certain invertebrates in the bill could spur further reform. Amending the Animal Welfare Act to include such animals would ensure they received some legal protection at all stages of captivity, not just at the time of killing. More detailed regulations on invertebrate welfare and prohibiting certain methods of slaughter – such as boiling alive – would be welcome changes.
A committee with the power to scrutinise government policy could also drive a more unified approach to animal welfare in law-making. There are already specialist bodies tasked with advising the government on animal welfare in agriculture and scientific research, but the new committee’s remit covers all areas of government policy. This could include, for example, assessing the impact of trade deals on international animal welfare standards or how the HS2 railway line might affect wildlife.
The committe’s reports could help make animal welfare considerations common across all government departments. And the secretary of state responding to these reports could increase accountability and openness on animal welfare issues in parliament.
There are important limits to this legislation though. The bill does not legally oblige the government to consider animals in the policies it makes, let alone demonstrate improvements for their welfare. The government is only obliged to respond to the reports of the Animal Sentience Committee, and has no responsibility to implement any of its recommendations.
The bill also fails to lay out how that committee will be appointed, financed or constituted. There’s a risk it could end up stuffed with government or industry-aligned figures who lack either the independence or expertise to effectively scrutinise policy.
The law was also designed to minimise the possibility of new judicial reviews of government policy. This means that the chances of this legislation being used to haul the government before the courts for failing to give due regard to animal welfare are slim.
Given the bill’s lack of detail and teeth, it may offer few tangible benefits for animals. Even the bill’s much vaunted inclusion of invertebrates was quickly downplayed by the government, which stressed that it would have “no direct impact on the shellfish catching or restaurant industry”. In other words, the mere recognition of invertebrate sentience does not entail a departure from business as usual.
The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill is a symbolic milestone and may open space for more accountable and responsive government policy, as well as public debate. But it does not do so automatically. The continued scrutiny and pressure of the animal protection movement will be vital to transform the lofty ideals that underpin the legislation into concrete improvements for animal lives.
Joe Wills has received funding from the Leverhulme Trust.