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An Evaluation of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill

By Ilina Georgieva.

On the 13th of May, the government introduced the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill into Parliament, which seeks to formally recognise the sentient status of animals. The Bill signals the initiation of the government's 'Action Plan for Animal Welfare', aiming to solidify the UK's position as a 'global leader' in animal welfare.[1]

Animal sentience is a widely accepted reality among the scientific community—it means that animals 'have the capacity to experience positive and negative feelings such as pleasure, joy, pain and distress that matter to the individual'[2]. In ‘Animals as Sentient Commodities’, Rhoda Wilkie refers to the 'paradox' apparent in the fact that animals (particularly farm animals) are simultaneously treated as 'functional objects and sentient beings'[3]. Formally recognising the reality of sentience is thus, in my view, an indispensable aspect of any animal rights framework. It rightly elevates the position of animals above being mere economic commodities or ‘functional objects’; they are living creatures capable of suffering, worthy of being treated with respect, care and compassion. The symbolic power of the Bill should not be understated.

Prior to Brexit, the UK was a party to the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, which required EU members to ‘pay full regard’ to animal welfare, ‘since animals are sentient beings.’ Controversially, in 2017 the government refused to carry through the Lisbon Treaty clause into post-Brexit policy. However, it justified this decision by asserting that the Lisbon treaty offered insufficient protection to animals; Brexit offered an opportunity to create a regime of animal welfare protection that would raise standards nationally.[4]

The formal legal recognition of animal sentience undoubtedly sends a clear message to the public and the international community that the UK is committed to protecting the welfare of animals. However, to render the message meaningful, the commitment on paper must be followed up in practice.

So, how, if at all, does the Bill improve upon the Lisbon Treaty? The ambiguity of the words 'pay full regard' in the Treaty is telling; much discretion is given to member states as to how they wish to interpret and act upon this requirement to ‘pay full regard' to the welfare of animals. In contrast, one of the main elements of the Bill is the establishment of an 'Animal Sentience Committee' (ACS)[5], which is to produce a report 'when any governmental policy is being or has been formulated or implemented'[6] addressing the potential ramifications of the policy on animal welfare and offering its recommendations to the government. It is highlighted in the Bill that 'The purpose is that of ensuring that, in any further formulation or implementation of the policy, the government has all due regard to the ways in which the policy might have an adverse effect on the welfare of animals as sentient beings.'[7] Section 3 outlines that 'where the Animal Sentience Committee publishes a report under section 2, the Secretary of State must lay a response to the report before Parliament' within 3 months[8]. Thus, a platform is created within the political process for voicing policy-related animal welfare concerns, which must be addressed by the government.

It remains to be seen how effective this protective mechanism will be. On the one hand, the Committee’s reports may exert considerable political pressure on the government to fully incorporate animal welfare considerations in its policies. The impact of Parliamentary committees is not necessarily reduced by their lack of directly enforceable powers. They play a crucial role in upholding governmental accountability through their reports, which subject policy decisions to scrutiny.

However, once again, the ambiguity of the provisions is notable. It is not clear how active a role the committee will play, and how regular its reports will be. Similarly, it is vital that the government respond positively to the reports, amending policy where recommended; it is not clear that the duty of the Secretary of State to issue a response will provide the kind of governmental engagement with animal welfare concerns that is necessary. Moreover, the ex-Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Kerry McCarthy, has emphasised that the duty to pay regard to animal sentience and welfare needs should be a positive duty, not a negative one[9]. That is, the Bill should not merely seek to curtail the infliction of suffering and pain. It should aim to protect the freedoms and welfare of animals, allowing them to live 'happy, healthy and fulfilled lives'[10]. It is thus a matter of waiting to see if the scope and reach of the ACS's reports and recommendations will cover this ground.

The vague nature of the Bill may perhaps prove to be its major strength. A stronger Bill purporting to, for example, make the consideration of animal sentience and welfare a direct and judicially enforceable duty, may have met with considerable opposition in its passage through Parliament. Nonetheless, it remains premature to laud the Bill. We cannot allow its impressive symbolism to distract from the ultimate objective of implementing practical measures to allow the UK to consolidate its position as 'global leader' in animal welfare standards.


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