The EU Withdrawal Bill, which transposes all European law into UK law, was voted on by MPs last week, and there was one glaring omission: the recognition of animals as “sentient beings” was specifically removed, and the requirement for governments to pay “full regard” to their welfare is now absent.
How can this happen in a country like the UK that has a reputation for being “animal loving”?
Many onlookers fear that the answer to this question may be simple and brutal: the UK may be preparing to switch focus from “high welfare” to “low cost” livestock farming.
Under current EU law, animals are currently recognised as “sentient beings” i.e. they are capable of feeling pain and emotion. This is in keeping with the latest scientific understanding of animal neurology which was announced at a meeting of world-renowned scientists in 2012.
Globally, the European Union is recognised as an animal-friendly zone. There are many strong central directives (which in the past have often been promoted by the UK) which protect animal welfare. Individual nations have been obliged to comply with these directives, regardless of internal legislation, and animal welfare has benefitted as a consequence. To date, as part of the European Union, the United Kingdom has been able to hold its head high as a supporter of best-possible animal welfare.
Other trading blocks, such as the USA, South America, Australasia and China, have less protections in place for farmed animals. This has led to industrial-style factory-farming practices becoming the global norm, for meat, egg and milk production. Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens, has referred to this as “one of the worst crimes in history”.
After Brexit, the UK will need to compete on international markets. High animal welfare practices carry a price tag. If our farmers want to match countries outside the EU on prices, it would be convenient if there were fewer laws in place to protect animal welfare.
In particular, the UK will need to negotiate new trade deals: one of the roadblocks in the now stalled negotiations on a new trade deal between the USA and the EU may have been the strong protection of animal welfare. Could it be that the UK government has removed “animal sentience” as part of a plan to work more closely with the USA?
One of the arguments put forward by the Government during the debate was that animal sentience is already covered by the Animal Welfare Act 2006, so that there was no need to have it mentioned again. The RSPCA has countered by pointing out that “animal sentience” is not mentioned in the Animal Welfare Act, and that not all animals (e.g. wildlife and laboratory animals) are covered by the act.
This omission has particularly concerned many people: could this be a prelude to the resumption of hunting in the UK? Or could there be plans for row back on the protection of animals in laboratories? The veterinary profession is equally unhappy about the removal of “animal sentience” from UK law.
Animal welfare groups are understandably dismayed by the MPs’ decision, with Compassion in World Farming starting a petition to demand that it’s reversed.
Commentators in the mainstream media have taken different stances.
The Independent has written a critical piece, which has been shared over 300000 times, while a Times journalist (not commenting directly on the decision) has written that “animals should never be treated as our equals”, and a Daily Telegraph commenter, while not disagreeing that animals are sentient, has agreed with the decision, saying that “we ought to decide for ourselves, through our own democratic mechanisms”.
So there’s a spectrum of opinions out there. We live in a democracy, which means that the majority decision should apply.
Our current MPs have made their call: what do you think?