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Separating fact from fiction on animal sentience

piglets in sunlight

Q: Why is this such a hot topic?

A: The EU Withdrawal Bill, which is currently being debated in Parliament, seeks to formally enact Brexit and ensure that there are no gaps in British law when the UK exits the European Union (EU). However, as currently drafted, it does not include provision to transfer the principle contained in Article 13 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU (TFEU) recognising animals as sentient beings into British legislation. This has raised concerns because British law, under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, does not explicitly recognise the term although it does acknowledge that animals can experience suffering and pain.

Q: What is Article 13?

A: Based on the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam, Article 13 forms part of the Lisbon Treaty, signed in 2007, which subsequently became the TFEU.

Q: What does article 13 say?

A: Article 13

“In formulating and implementing the Union's agriculture, fisheries, transport, internal market, research and technological development and space policies, the Union and the Member States shall, since animals are sentient beings, pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals, while respecting the legislative or administrative provisions and customs of the Member States relating in particular to religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage.” *

Q: Did the government vote that animals aren’t sentient beings?

A: No, they voted against continuing to recognise them as such in British law post-Brexit. The amendment that was tabled would have continued the protections offered by Article 13 (that as animals are sentient beings, full regard must be paid to their welfare in the formulation of policies). This protection covers the relationship between the state and animals, and seeks to ensure that the sentience of animals is a factor when formulating, for example, agricultural law. The continuation of this protection post-Brexit was voted down. The ‘full regard’ element is just as important as the recognition of sentience, as it ensures animals cannot be treated as ‘goods’ when it comes to creating laws which impact them.

Q: But doesn’t the Animal Welfare Act 2006 cover it?

A: The Animal Welfare Act is a piece of British legislation that protects against the mistreatment of animals by those responsible for them e.g. their owners or carers. It is about the relationship between individuals and animals. It does not cover the same area as Article 13, which is a constraint on government policy (not on individuals). Further, animal sentience is only mentioned in passing in the explanatory notes of this Act, rather than being explicitly stated. And the Act only applies to domesticated animals so, for example, wildlife and lab animals are not covered by the Act.

Q: Has Compassion been peddling fake news?

A: No. All our communications e.g. our petition make it clear that it is the recognition of sentience, and the need to pay full regard to it when formulating policy, that is at stake. We have not suggested that individual MPs may not believe in animal sentience. What we are campaigning about is recognition of animal sentience and the need to pay full regard to animal welfare in British law. The government made two commitments on this, both of which will have been broken if the Withdrawal Bill is not amended in the later stages. First, Mr Gove told Parliament that Article 13 would “absolutely” be included in the Withdrawal Bill. Second, Ministers stated that the Withdrawal Bill would maintain the existing legal framework, adapted to British law. The removal of the recognition of animal sentience and the need to pay full regard to animal welfare is a clear change in the legal position.

Q: The government have committed to continuing and enhancing animal welfare post Brexit, isn’t that enough?

A: We very much welcome Mr Gove’s assurances in response to the public outcry on this issue. However, whilst he has given assurances, he has not said how he will deliver this protection post-Brexit, or put a timeframe on it. He talks about finding the ‘right legislative vehicle’. If he would confirm what this vehicle will be – for example amending the existing Animal Welfare Act or the expected Agriculture Bill - and what it will contain we would potentially be content that due consideration has been given to the issue, so long as this had the same or better legal scope. We remain concerned that as it stands at the moment, the recognition of animals as sentient beings, and the need to pay full regard to that sentience when formulating policy, will be lost post-Brexit.

Q: What could the government do?

A: We have suggested that a simple solution would be to amend the Withdrawal Bill to bring the Article 13 protections into British law. This would be a very easy way to ensure the protection remains.

Q: But Article 13 allows all sorts of awful practices; bull fighting etc.?

A: Those practices are only allowed under a derogation in Article 13 for ‘cultural practices’. the UK has no cultural history of bullfighting or foie gras production, so the clause that allows Spain and France to continue the unacceptable practices, under Article 13, would not be applicable in the UK if the UK incorporates Article 13 into British law. Whilst we agree that Article 13 is far from perfect, the recognition of sentience and paying full regard to it when formulating policy is an important principle, and a minimum to which any government should commit. We would encourage the government to keep this protection in British law, and then go much further post-Brexit. Accepting the provisions of Article 13 in no way prevents the government going beyond them in the future. Article 13 does not cover every type of new law, it applies only to ‘agriculture, fisheries, transport, internal market, research and technological development and space policies’ but given the vast numbers of animals covered by these, particularly the first three, it is vital this protection remains in force in the UK. This is especially important as the UK will be revising and reviewing so much policy and legislation post-Brexit.

Q: Doesn’t the UK have the best animal welfare in the world, so we don’t need to worry?

A: The UK does have higher standards of welfare than a lot of other countries. However, other countries are stronger on a number of issues, and it is complacent to believe that British legislation is inherently superior. For example Germany has recently committed to phasing out all cages for laying hens, Sweden has banned farrowing crates for pigs, and parts of Belgium are taking action on unstunned slaughter. In recent months we have been delighted to see the government making progress on issues like CCTV in slaughterhouses. However, if we lose this recognition of sentience and the obligation it places on governments, we will be in a weaker position.

Our friends at World Animal Protection, who have created the Animal Protection Index which is often cited in this debate, say:

“We strongly urge the Government to publish more specific details of the legislative vehicle it proposes to use as soon as possible […] World Animal Protection will then examine the proposals as part of its 2018 review of its Animal Protection Index (API): a classification of 50 countries according to their commitments to protect animals. This will be published next year with updated ratings for each country, including an assessment of whether the UK has maintained its current top 'A' standard.”

The British Veterinary Association also has a number of concerns about not including Article 13 in British law. They have a very good article, which tries to separate the sensational headlines from the complex reality, as does The Independent.

Q: What can I do?

A: We must keep the public pressure up until we have an answer from the government on how and when they are going to ensure this protection remains. Please continue to sign and share the petition, write to your MP and try to clear up any confusion on this issue. If you have time, maybe you can arrange to meet with your MP at one of their local surgeries, or in Westminster? Hearing in person why this issue means so much to you could really help to sway them on this and ensure we get the protection for animals that we need when we leave the EU.

* EU Commission, Treaty of Lisbon (2007/C306/01), 2007