Greg Smith is the Conservative MP for Buckingham.
If the purpose of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill was to attract glowing headlines, it has so far achieved anything but that. Rather, it has attracted widespread criticism and caused concern among rural groups, peers and fellow MPs over its worrying lack of detail. As I write this, the Bill currently before us risks handing the Labour Party ammunition which it can and will use to advance its own agenda.
Crucially, critique so far has not disputed whether animals have the capacity to feel pain. After all, the sentience of animals has long been recognised in UK law, as evidenced by the animal welfare legislation passed by parliaments over nearly 200 years. The concerns have centred on the Bill’s main danger posed by the creation of a new Animal Sentience Committee.
It remains unclear who will be on this Committee and what powers it will have. We know that the Committee will be given the power to report on any government policy – both past and present – and the role of the Committee will not be to scrutinise the substance of policy decisions, but the process by which those decisions were reached and whether all due regard had been given to animal welfare.
Alarmingly, however, the Bill’s draft Terms of Reference seem to suggest that the Committee could have a role in scrutinising policies. We also know that the Secretary of State for DEFRA will have the final sign off on its composition, but what mechanisms will be in place to ensure it is made up of genuine animal experts and not ideologically-driven animal rights activists with political agendas?
Passionate supporters of the Committee’s creation have talked publicly of it not excluding animal rights extremist groups like PETA and have written enthusiastically of its remit extending to scrutinise future infrastructure projects such as the creation of a new power plant. And what will become of future trade deals, farming and scientific research? As things stand, the Bill is in danger of clumsily becoming a Trojan Horse for an extreme agenda that this Government could likely regret in years to come.
As a Conservative MP, my concern about the committee comes not from its likely composition and activity under the current government, but from how it may be used by a future government hostile to rural interests.
After its Committee Stage last Thursday, we no longer need to speculate about the intentions of the most likely future hostile government – because the Opposition told us.
While the Minister continued to protest its benign proportionality, Daniel Zeichner, the Shadow Defra Minister, summed up Labour’s response:
“The Minister… has not been able to answer the question of where sentience currently stands, so the only conclusion we can come to is that the Bill needs to be beefed up and made much stronger. I can assure you, Sir Charles, that in a couple of years’ time, it will be.”
Kerry McCarthy, the vegan whose ethical opposition to livestock farming as a concept was felt by the previous Labour leader to be no impediment to her short-lived appointment as Shadow Defra Secretary, was even more explicit with her blatant attack on our sustainable game meat industry:
“It was disappointing that the first three Government Back Benchers to speak on Second Reading of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill were very much against it and the doors it might open. Let us be frank: that was because they fear a cracking down on blood sports and hunting and shooting… If we did truly recognise sentience in law, we would be questioning driven grouse shooting and all the loopholes allowing foxhunting to proceed.”
That is what Labour sees as the logical conclusion to the process this Bill sets in train. That is the opportunity the Government risks handing to those who do not share its intentions.
Reflecting on the future of France that would follow the reign of her lover, King Louis XV, Madame de Pompadour is reputed to have said flippantly, “Après nous, le deluge.” We who appreciate the rural way of life might have hoped the current UK Government would act more responsibly.
It must recognise the long-term risks legislation such as this could have and how it could be weaponised against the interests of our hardworking farming community, those who undertake countryside management- including pest control to protect livestock – as well as the British public in the long term.