Who would have thought that “animal sentience” would cause a national political ripple? That’s exactly what has happened recently, as I described in a recent blog post.

When the EU Withdrawal Bill, transposing European law into UK law, was voted on by MPs in mid-November, a Green Party amendment that ensured that animals would be regarded as “sentient beings” under UK law was rejected.

This vote caused outrage amongst many animal lovers; a petition protesting against it gathered over 300000 signatures within a week.

Unfortunately, the details of what had happened were distorted by eager copy writers, as evidenced by the Metro’s headline MPs vote that ‘animals can’t feel pain or emotion’ as part of Brexit bill”. Government supporters seized on this misinterpretation of the facts, calling the entire episode “fake news” in an effort to defuse the national sense of genuine indignation.

The truth is that there is a real story here: the government has, indeed, made the decision not to include in UK law the specific fact that animals are sentient. This is quite different to saying that they have voted that animals are not sentient, but this does not make it any less important.

Environment secretary Michael Gove has tried to defuse the situation, stating that the government is “committed to the very highest standards of animal welfare”, and he made a promise: “We will strengthen our animal welfare rules. This government will ensure that any necessary changes required to UK law are made in a rigorous and comprehensive way to ensure animal sentience is recognised after we leave the EU. The Withdrawal Bill is not the right place to address this, however we are considering the right legislative vehicle.” He went on to describe pro-animal measures that the government has already put in place, including installing mandatory CCTV in slaughterhouses, increasing sentences for animal cruelty and banning sales of ivory.

There is no doubt that the government has taken some progressive steps in favour of animal welfare. But the question that animal lovers are now asking is: how can we be sure that the government will follow Mr Gove’s promises with action?

Gudrun Ravetz, senior vice president at the British Veterinary Association, spoke on Radio 4 last week, detailing the different protections for animals in Article 13 of the Lisbon Treaty compared to the UK’s Animal Welfare Act 2006.

“Article 13 puts a duty on the state to pay full regard to animal welfare for a specific set of policies and explicitly states that animals are sentient. Now the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which is UK law, puts the duty for the animal welfare on the owner or the keeper.”

She explained that if the principle of Article 13 was not brought into UK law then there would not be a duty on the state to pay full regard to animal welfare.

Furthermore, as has been previously stated, wildlife and laboratory animals are not included in the Animal Welfare Act 2006. And as mentioned in my previous blog post, cynics are concerned that the omission of reference to animal sentience could be part of an unspoken long term plan to introduce lower welfare policies for animal research, hunting and farming. This could then facilitate post-Brexit trade deal negotiations with lower welfare trading blocks such as the USA, China and elsewhere.

The British Veterinary Association (BVA), along with the British Veterinary Nursing Association (BVNA) has continued to campaign strongly on this issue: a 1,200-signature letter calling for the principle of Article 13 to be explicitly enshrined in UK legislation post-Brexit was published in the Daily Telegraph on 28th November. A total of 1,194 individual veterinary surgeons, veterinary nurses and veterinary students added their names to this call on the UK government to ensure there is a duty on the state to have due regard for animal welfare in the development and implementation of policy, as Article 13 of the Lisbon Treaty sets out.

The BVA and BVNA say that they support the government’s call for animal welfare to be strengthened post-Brexit, but they rightly state that there must be the legal framework in place to achieve this. They will continue to press the government to explain how and when the principle laid down in Article 13 of the Lisbon Treaty will be enshrined in UK law before we leave the EU.

It’s far easier for a government to promise action than it is to take action: history has many examples of politicians’ broken promises.

If you, too, support the stance of the BVA, please share this blog post as widely as possible. We want the UK government to listen, and to listen well. Animals do not have their own voices, and it’s up to us to speak on their behalf.