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Have we really reformed animal welfare post-Brexit?

Comment & OpinionHave we really reformed animal welfare post-Brexit?

By Ayesha Smart, Barrister, 33 Bedford Row

 “High standards of animal welfare are one of the hallmarks of a civilised society”

This is something that the Conservatives have argued since their manifesto in 2019, and subsequently by their Secretaries of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but what actually has been achieved? Particularly post-Brexit?

Now, alarmingly to animal lovers and animal welfare activists alike, after the UK left the European Union on the 1st January 2021, animal sentience was the only piece of EU legislation that was not transposed.

Further, Brexit put animal welfare at risk in a number of ways which the RSPCA helpfully outlined:

  1. 80 percent of current animal welfare legislation comes from EU law (with over 40 animal welfare laws)
  2. EU animal welfare laws cover four key areas – there are 17 laws relevant to farm animals, 11 laws for wildlife, eight laws covering animals used in research, and four laws about companion animals
  3. Current EU law, known as the Lisbon Treaty (a binding agreement between EU member countries), recognises animals as sentient beings, this means they’re understood as having the capacity to feel pain and suffering
  4. Depending on which trade framework is agreed post-Brexit, there’s a possibility that new trade agreements will be made with countries which have lower animal welfare standards. For example, the USA gives growth hormones to their cows, still uses conventional battery cages (in most states), don’t have species specific slaughter regulations and still uses sow stalls in most pig production
  5. The UK farming industry currently receives over €3 billion in EU subsidies and the UK Government will now be exploring a new support system for farms.

Thankfully, several Bills have now been put before Parliament that accord with the 5 key strands identified in the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs action plan for animal welfare[1]. Each of these Bills and other reforms will be looked at individually.

Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022

At long last, the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill finally found its way through Parliament on the 8th April 2022 and received Royal Assent on the 28th April 2022. The new legislation will be known as the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022. This monumental moment means animal sentience will officially be incorporated directly into UK law.

Sentience is the ability to feel sensations and emotions, the ability to experience feelings such as joy, pleasure, fear and pain. Where some animals are concerned it is wholly obvious that they have personalities and behaviours of their own, but there is also a wealth of scientific research evidencing that animals, including those farmed for human consumption, are sentient.

Despite initially only recognising vertebrates as sentient beings, following a government commissioned review of over 300 scientific studies assessing the sentience of cephalopods and decapods, the Act now covers the following animals:

(a) any vertebrate other than homo sapiens

(b) any cephalopod mollusc (e.g. octopi and squid)

(c) any decapod crustacean (e.g. as crabs and lobsters)

Despite recognising all vertebrate animals and some invertebrates as “sentient” beings, as even the House of Commons Library website points out, “sentience” itself is disappointingly not defined within the Act. Nevertheless, it marks an important step forward for animal welfare law and will fill gaps in animal protection that had opened up in UK law as a result of Brexit.

 It will also see the formation of an Animal Sentience Committee which will have freedoms to scrutinise government policy and ensure it has taken animal welfare into account. The Committee will have the power to publish reports on its findings. The Government Minister with responsibility for that policy area will then be duty-bound to provide Parliament with a written response to these reports within three months. It will also halt most live animal exports and the importation of hunting trophies.

Although the Act does not ban any specific objectionable practices per se, such as boiling crustaceans alive, it does mean that policymakers will be obligated to take these animals and their ability to suffer into account when making decisions.

Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill

 The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs also proposed the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill[2] which would specifically prohibit the export of animals for slaughter or fattening for future slaughter. It would also provide important protections for animals in regard to exports generally, the smuggling of dogs and cats, and further safeguards around keeping pets.

The Bill was introduced for its first reading on 8th June 2021 and was awaiting the report stage date to be announced in the House of Commons. However, the Bill hit a standstill due to some Conservative MP’s being divided over the issue of fox-hunting, resulting in the Bill running out of time.

The good news is that on the 26th April 2022, Downing Street subjected the Bill to a carry-over motion seeing the Bill return for the next Parliamentary session. The House will be able to consider MP Roger Gale’s tabled amendments which would make it a criminal offence to “intentionally” lay or allow dogs to follow “an animal-based scent for hunting activities”, punishable with up to 1 year’s imprisonment. This is something which would be largely welcome by the public.

 Animals Abroad Bill

 Another Bill in its very early stages is the Animals Abroad Bill. The inquiry was opened in 2021 and closed for submissions in September 2021 with a formal meeting for oral evidence on 2nd November 2021. The purpose of this Bill would be to tackle animal cruelty and support conservation efforts overseas. It would include bans on hunting trophies that threaten the conservation status of species abroad as well as the domestic sale and advertising of experiences overseas, such as elephant rides, which would amount to animal cruelty.

This inquiry has been paused by the Committee as they do not feel they can scrutinise the Bill until it is actually published by the government – something which the government have still not confirmed a date for. Sadly, once again due to lobbying by a small group of Conservative MP’s, it appears the Bill may reach a roadblock to this due to the opposition on the proposed bans on:

  • importing hunting trophies
  • importing fur
  • foie gras.

Although the introduction of the Bill suggests a willingness to promote animal welfare in the UK post-Brexit, it appears political views and preferences over the right to personal choice may interfere with meaningful animal welfare legislation being passed.

 Glue Traps (Offences) Act 2022

The Glue Traps (Offences) Bill was first introduced into Parliament on 16th June 2021 and in a momentous victory for wildlife, it was unanimously unopposed at the third reading in the House of Lords on the 26th April 2022 and received Royal Assent on the 28th April 2022.

The Glue Traps (Offences) Act 2022 makes it an offence to set a glue trap for the purposes of catching a rodent, as well as other connected offences. Those found guilty could be liable for a fine or up to 51 week’s imprisonment. Further, discovering a glue trap but failing, without reasonable excuse, to ensure it is disabled will also constitute an offence.

Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act 2021

The Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill received Royal Assent on 29th April 2021. The Act means that Courts are able to enforce tougher penalties for animal cruelty crimes under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. The types of animal cruelty that will face tougher penalties under this legislation include dog fighting, abuse of puppies and kittens, illegally cropping a dog’s ears and gross neglect of farm animals. It increases the maximum prison sentence for animal cruelty from six months to five years as of 29th June 2021. However, the difficulty in practice will be newly available the option to elect a jury trial which may offer better prospects of acquittal.

Animal (Penalty Notices) Act 2022

This Private Members’ Bill followed on from the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill in that it introduced fines of up to £5,000 for certain animal offences. After being passed at the beginning of April 2022, the Bill also received Royal Assent on the 28th April 2022. Ultimately, this Bill creates a system of financial penalties of up to £5,000 for animal health and welfare offences, which would include on-the-spot fines, and would be issued to individuals who have mistreated pets, zoo animals and livestock.

 Conclusion

The collective efforts of the proposed animal welfare bills making its way through the system and new legislation clearly supports small incremental improvements to animal welfare. However, it is not so effective that it prevents the widespread suffering inflicted upon animals which happens when they are so often treated as commodities. As to whether we will have any more substantial protective measures afforded to animals remains to be seen.

Ayesha Smart, Barrister, 33 Bedford Row

[1] Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs – https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-to-lead-the-way-on-animal-welfare-through-flagship-new-action-plan

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