Greg Smith: The Animal Welfare Bill is in danger of becoming a Trojan Horse for an extreme agenda

17 Feb

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.

Daniel Hannan: It’s time to recork the Gauke

18 Aug

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

I still do a double take whenever I remember that David Gauke is no longer in the Conservative Party. If you read his fortnightly column on ConHome, you’ll know that the former Justice Secretary is a Tory to his backbone.

I don’t just mean in the sense of being suspicious of big government, a supporter of open competition and so on. I mean that he has, for want of a better phrase, a conservative temperament. He is pragmatic, ironic, self-aware; clever but sceptical of intellectuals; a handy cricketer and a lifelong Ipswich Town supporter; an authentic champion of the quietly patriotic suburban communities he used to represent.

True, Gauke has a low opinion of the PM, and that prejudice sometimes leads him to put a needlessly negative construction on whatever the Government is doing. But what makes his column so readable is the tension between his dislike of our present leadership and his essential fair-mindedness.

I suppose I should declare an interest. Gauke and I were Conservative students together and, after we graduated, we both worked for Eurosceptic MPs – I for Michael Spicer, he for Barry Legg. We were later involved together in the European Research Group. Indeed, the Gawkster became our treasurer, a position to which he brought the same flinty fiscal conservatism that was to characterise his time as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. I consider him a friend – though I should add that he has no idea I am writing this column. (Had I mentioned it, he’d have modestly told me not to bother and perhaps secretly hoped that I’d ignore him. He is, as I say, very English.)

That Gauke should now be outside the Conservative Party is a reminder that the fevered and phantasmagorical events of 2018 and 2019 really happened. Already, it takes an effort of will to recall those days: the court challenges; the pretence that a referendum that everyone had promised to respect was meaningless; the horrible sight of a Commons Speaker bending the rules with partisan intent; the demonstrations and counter-demonstrations; the Supreme Court’s glib dismissal of the 1689 Bill of Rights; the spectacle of a government being kept in office by MPs who would not let carry through its business but would not agree to fresh elections either; and, in the end, what looked like a breakdown of the party system.

A number of Labour and Conservative MPs left their parties, to the delirious excitement of the broadcast media. But it turned out that years of soft questioning on Newsnight and the Today Programme did not translate into electoral support. Chuka Umunna, Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen, Luciana Berger, Sarah Wollaston, Dominic Grieve – all sank without trace.

Europhile MPs repeatedly sought to disable Brexit by ensuring that the pro-EU Commons majority would get to decide whether or not to accept the deal. The effect of their antics was to destroy the Government’s negotiating position and ensure that Britain got the worst possible terms. The punitive Northern Ireland Protocol was perhaps their supreme achievement.

In September 2019, 21 Conservative MPs lost the Whip after voting to switch control of the legislative process from the Government to the Commons. They had varying motives. Some were die-in-the-ditch Remainers; some didn’t like Boris Johnson; some (Anne Milton in Guildford, Steve Brine in Winchester) had peculiarly Europhile constituencies; some simply fell in with the wrong crowd.

When the election was called three months later, they scattered in all directions. Ten of the 21 had the Whip restored, of whom six stood down and four (Brine, Greg Clark, Stephen Hammond and Caroline Nokes) won their seats again as Conservatives. Of the 11 who remained outside the fold, six retired, two (Sam Gyimah and Antoinette Sandbach) stood unsuccessfully as Lib Dems and three (Milton, Dominic Grieve and Gauke himself) stood unsuccessfully as independents.

Johnson is temperamentally unable to bear grudges, and cheerfully put four of the 21 – Ken Clarke, Philip Hammond, Ed Vaizey and Richard Benyon – into the House of Lords. Indeed, I’m happy to say that Benyon, one of the most accomplished countrymen at Westminster, is back on the front bench as a DEFRA minister.

But not Gauke. If we can liken the événements of 2019 to a tectonic upheaval – and I think we can – then the Gawkster is a volcanic rock that has been hurled miles away by the blast. There he sits, a geological anomaly, reminding us that violent forces once altered the landscape.

At least, I hope he is an anomaly. Gawkie himself likes to write about the big-government turn that the Conservatives had taken even before the epidemic struck. A general realignment, he thinks, has left the party speaking to and for relatively protectionist, interventionist and dirigiste communities.

Such a party, runs the subtext, has less space for people like him: fiscal conservatives who are mildly Europhile. (I say “mildly” because Gauke never voted to block Brexit. He quit the party because he was convinced – quite wrongly, as it turned out – that the PM was planning to leave the EU without any trade deal.)

Such liberal-minded MPs dominated the pre-2015 party. We hear a lot less from them these days. Perhaps they have changed their minds. Perhaps they are keeping quiet, sensing that public opinion is going through an authoritarian spasm. Perhaps there has simply been a turnover in personnel.

Whatever the explanation, we need to remember that our party contains multitudes. We have had space, down the centuries, for protectionists and free-traders, for interventionists and privatisers, for Heathites and Thatcherites, for Europhiles and Eurosceptics (though this last division is, I hope, now as redundant as the arguments over Catholic emancipation or Rhodesian independence).

We are slipping in Gauke’s former constituency – and, indeed, across my old Home Counties patch. Yet our former voters – self-reliant, affluent, sceptical of state capacity and with little time for populism – are an indispensable part of our coalition. We need, not just their faute-de-mieux support, but their active enthusiasm. Finding a way to recork the Gauke might be a good start