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Progress of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill - FRAME's view

As the Government asks for expert feedback on the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill by the 8th of February, Amy Beale, Education & Outreach Manager at FRAME, runs through the history of the current draft, discusses potential weaknesses, encourages animal welfare experts to respond to the Public Bill Committee, and asks MPs to engage with and support the Bill to ensure recognition of sentience in animals is enshrined in UK law.

A Government Press release in May 2021 promoting the introduction of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill as part of the Government’s Action Plan for Animal Welfare stated that the new ‘Animal Sentience Committee will put animal sentience at heart of government policy’. However, in paragraph 21 of the recently published Explanatory Notes for the Bill, the Government also states that whilst the Animal Sentience Committee will be able to issue opinions and write reports, ‘This does not mean that the welfare of sentient animals should take precedence over other considerations when formulating or implementing a particular policy.’ This acknowledgement raises questions about how much impact the new Bill will have and what influence the new Animal Sentience Committee will truly have on policy.

What is the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill?

The creation of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill was started by the UK Government in response to concerns raised when Article 13 of the Lisbon Treaty, which recognises animals as sentient beings, was not transposed into UK legislation, post-Brexit.

The initial bill proposal was paused by Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) in response to concerns raised by EFRA (The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee) over ambiguity in Clause 1 of the Bill and its scope and accountability mechanisms. Examples of concerns raised included a lack of definition of ‘animal’ in the Bill and  what ‘regard for welfare’ meant in practical terms in the statement ‘Ministers of the Crown [to] have regard to the welfare needs of animals as sentient beings in formulating and implementing government policy.’

The current Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill was introduced in the House of Lords on 13 May 2021. This included recognition that all vertebrate and some invertebrate animals are sentient. The Bill is short, consisting of six clauses split into two sections. The first section covers the establishment and role of the Animal Sentience Committee (ASC), reporting by the ASC and how the Government responds to reports. The second section covers transparency information, definition of ‘animal’ for the purposes of the Bill, and its commencement and territorial extent. More information can be found in the Explanatory Notes for the Bill.

Defining Sentience

Worryingly the term ‘sentience’ is not defined in the Bill. Whilst the UK’s Animal Welfare Committee (an expert committee that provides independent, impartial advice to Defra and the Scottish and Welsh Governments on farm animal welfare) has previously defined sentience as ’the capacity to experience pain, distress or harm’ this is a very narrow description and more complex and accurate definitions exist. Feedback on different definitions of sentience were considered by the Government in the creation of the Bill – however the current Bill contains no definition. Lord Beynon, Under Secretary of State for Defra, suggested this was due to the term being ‘heavily influenced by the latest scientific understanding’ and that it was ‘not necessary’ to define sentience in statute for the Bill to work.’

The Bill was however amended by the Government to include cephalopods molluscs (such as octopus and shrimp) and decapod cephalopods (such as lobsters and crabs) in the definition of animals that are sentient, following a review of the evidence by the London School of Economics and Political Science in November 2021.

Concerns with the current Bill

  • This is a prime time to take the lead on establishing a detailed definition of sentience to be enshrined in law to help acknowledge advances in our understanding of sentience in different species. The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) Review of the Evidence of Sentience in Cephalopod Molluscs and Decapod Crustaceans demonstrates that our understanding of sentience and the capacity of different species to suffer has changed over time. This report also includes a more explicit definition of the word ‘sentience.’
  • Lack of clarification on how the members will be selected by the Secretary of State and what specific expertise and experience will be on the new ASC– for example experts in animal welfare, veterinary science, animal health and welfare or ethics.
  • Clarification on the powers of the ASC to gather information and assurances that the Committee will run as an independent body from Defra.

The EFRA inquiry into the Bill which began in May 2021, has yet to publish a report of its findings, however the Chair of the committee wrote to the secretary of State in January 2022 raising some unresolved concerns from the initial enquiry into the Bill that have not been addressed. The most interesting is the suggestion that over and above the reporting guidance in the Bill, the ASC should be required to, or able to, publish a strategy or annual report. These would be useful documents to inform policy makers and MPs and a great addition to improve transparency of government thinking around issues of animal welfare and sentience .

The current reporting requirements of the Bill state that the ASC may produce a report on any policy being formulated or implemented to provide an opinion on whether, and to what extent, the Government has had due regard to potential adverse effects on the welfare of animals as sentient beings. This is a reactive position and permits the ASC only limited scope to provide more general advice and guidance. Given the pace at which our scientific understanding of sentience is increasing this is a missed opportunity to use the Committee to ensure the UK retains and consolidates its position as a world leader on animal welfare.

 What now?

There is no doubt the current Bill could, and arguably should, be strengthened to provide more guidance and clarification. There are some positive aspects, for example the amendments to include invertebrates and the requirement for the Secretary of State to respond to ASC reports within 3 months.

In its current form I wonder whether, as the Action Plan for Animal Welfare produced by Defra in May 2021 promised, this new legislation will ensure that ‘Explicitly recognising and enshrining animals as sentient beings in law will be at the very heart of central government decision making going forward.’

However, as the RSPCA have recognised this is still a step forward in ensuring animal sentience is acknowledged and reviewed in the process of policy-making. We must encourage our MPs to engage with and support the Bill.

Up until the 8th February there is also an opportunity for those with expertise, experience, and interest in animal welfare to feedback evidence to the Public Bill committee on the current Bill. Read more here.

Further reading:

You can read more about the historical progression of the bill and feedback in this House of Commons Research Briefing paper released on the 17th of January.

Read the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill and Amendments here.

Animal Welfare Sentience Bill Explanatory Notes.

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