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Animal Sentience: the highs and lows

It's official. UK law will now recognise that animals can feel joy, pain, and fear once again.

On the 25th May 2023, the UK Animal Sentience Act came into force with the UK Government’s announcement of the membership of the Animal Sentience Committee. This follows the passing of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill in April 2022 and tireless campaigning by Compassion supporters.

Compassion welcomed the announcement of the membership of the Animal Sentience Committee and the role it will have in scrutinising the extent to which the UK Government has considered animal sentience throughout the creation, implementation and evaluation of policy. It is essential that the work of the Committee leads to genuine improvements in animal welfare, particularly for farmed animals in the UK and abroad, by ensuring animal sentience is accounted for throughout policy and decision making.

For over three decades, Compassion in World Farming, alongside its supporters and patrons, has been campaigning to have animals legally recognised as sentient beings.

First by campaigning for the introduction of animal sentience in EU law, and recently focusing our attention on making sure animals in the UK have the same legal recognition following Brexit.

As we celebrate this historic victory, let's look back over the hard work and dedication that got us here.

Animal Sentience in the EU

1988: Compassion in World Farming starts campaigning on animal sentience

It was back in 1998 that Compassion in World Farming began campaigning to get the European Union to recognise animals are sentient beings.

Our former CEO and current Ambassador Emeritus Joyce D’Silva reflects on how the campaign started in her 2020 guest blog. She notes that in 1998 the EU treaty didn’t mention sentience, instead only referring to animals as “goods” and “products” like sacks of potatoes.

1988-1991: Compassion led a coalition of organisations across the European Union to gather signatures for animals to be recognised as sentient beings, able to feel pain, joy, and suffering.

1991: One million signatures to the EU

Handing over one million signatures to the EU
Handing over one million signatures to the European Commission

In 1991, we handed in over one million signatures to the European Commission calling for animals to be recognised as sentient beings. This was the first-ever EU petition to reach one million signatures!

1992: A declaration that recognised animals can feel was annexed to the 1992 Maastricht Treaty.

1994: The Petitions Committee of the European Parliament, and later, a majority of the full European Parliament, endorsed our petition.

1996: Dame Joanna Lumley delivers petition to 10 Downing Street

Dame Joanna Lumley at Downing Street
Handing petition signatures to Downing Street

In 1996, our patron Dame Joanna Lumley delivered a petition to the British Prime Minister. This helped to secure the status of animals as sentient beings at the Intergovernmental Conference on Reform of the Treaty. The UK was also instrumental in convincing other Member States to act during the discussions on EU treaty reform.

Joanna Lumley talking in 2021 about the forthcoming Animal Sentience Bill:

Having fought for so many years, alongside Compassion, to see animal sentience recognised in EU law, it is a travesty that since January 2021, animals have not been recognised as sentient beings here in the UK. This just cannot continue. It’s vital that MPs support the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill as it progresses through parliament to ensure that animal sentience is re-established in UK law.

1996: A protest took place in Dublin as we continued our call for animals to be protected in the new Treaty.

Animal sentience protest in Dublin
Taking our animal sentience protest to Dublin

1997: The Treaty of Amsterdam becomes legal

Compassion in World Farming protesting in Amsterdam
Protesting on the streets of Amsterdam

Compassion led a demonstration outside the EU Prime Minister’ conference calling for greater recognition of animal sentience in European Law.

The declaration was annexed, as a legally binding protocol, to the Treaty of Amsterdam. This gave legal status and ensured animal sentience was recognised in EU law.

Joyce D’Silva looks back on that day:

I’ve been campaigning for Compassion for over 40 years and one of my proudest moments was in 1997 when our amazing supporters – people just like you – helped win a 10-year campaign to have animals recognised as sentient beings in EU law.

2007: The Lisbon Treaty was signed, and animals were recognised as sentient beings.

The Lisbon Treaty, which was signed in 2007 and came into force on 1st December 2009, saw the recognition of animal sentience upgraded to a Treaty Article, when the Lisbon Treaty amended the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) to include Article 13. 

This required Members States to ‘pay full regard’ to animal welfare when formulating and implementing EU policy. Read our web news article from the day it happened.

The full wording of Article 13 is:

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.

Animal Sentience in the UK

2017: Brexit threatens animal welfare
Despite the huge success in getting animal sentience recognised in EU law, the recognition of animal sentience in the UK took a big step backwards following the Brexit referendum in 2016.

The following year, Compassion in World Farming discovered that the UK Government’s European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which formally enacted Brexit, would not carry across provisions from EU Treaties – including Article 13 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU.

This meant that reference to animal sentience would disappear from UK law when the UK formally left the EU on 31st December 2020. Both the recognition of animals as having the capacity to have feelings, including pain and joy, and the requirement for governments to pay “full regard” to their welfare when formulating and implementing policy, would be lost from UK law. Read more about what Brexit meant for Animal Sentience in this news article.

Campaigning on animal sentience in the UK starts again
We had to start campaigning immediately to ensure that this cornerstone of animal welfare law was not lost when the UK left the EU. We mobilised supporters to lobby the Government, contacted Members of Parliament, and liaised with other NGOs to alert them to the threat to animal welfare. Unfortunately, it faced strong Government opposition and was narrowly defeated when it was put to the vote in Parliament.

Animal sentience hits the news

Animal sentience newspaper headline

The vote in Parliament led to huge news coverage – questioning whether the Government really did consider animals to be sentient beings.

Protest at Michael Gove's office

Protesting outside Michael Gove's constituency office
Outside Michael Gove's constituency office

In November 2017, we also went to the constituency office of Michael Gove MP, the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, calling for animals to be recognised as sentient in UK law.

Government announce Animal Sentience Bill
And finally, on the 12th of December 2017, following the media furore over the vote in Parliament – and under pressure from a 155,000-strong Compassion petition, the UK Government announced a new Bill would be introduced. This was a momentous moment as the Bill would permanently incorporate the legal recognition of animal sentience into UK law post-Brexit.

2018: Campaign setback as Government delays sentience legislation
Despite the positive announcement from the Government at the end of 2017, the campaign to recognise that animals are sentient beings faced even more setbacks in the following years.

Firstly, Parliament’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee published a report which suggested the Bill should be redrafted. The Committee raised concerns that, as the Bill was worded, paying regard to animal sentience would lead to the slowing down or freezing of policymaking and result in widespread Judicial Reviews. Following that report, the UK Government announced in September 2018 that the legislation relating to animal sentience would be delayed.

2019: Over 100,000 calls for animal sentience recognition

Petition hand in with the #BetterDealForAnimals coalition
Handing in petitions with the #BetterDealForAnimals coalition

In September 2019, our Senior Policy Manager, James West, handed in a 103,000-signature petition to Downing Street, alongside other members of the #BetterDealForAnimals coalition. The petition called on the UK Government to introduce legislation recognising animal sentience and require that full regard be given to animal welfare in UK Government policies.

2020: MPs debate animal sentience

As a result of the 2019 petition reaching over 100,000 signatures, MPs debated the issue in March 2020. Watch the highlights of the debate.

Then, following continued inaction from the Government, in September 2020 dedicated Compassion campaigners took action again.

Thousands of people urged their MPs to call on Ministers to introduce animal sentience legislation before 1st January 2021. This was the day after the UK would formally leave the EU, at which point EU laws recognising animal sentience at the time were due to run out.

2021: UK Government Introduces Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill
As the clock struck 11pm on 31st December 2020, despite persistent campaigning, animals in the UK were, for the first time in almost a quarter-century, no longer recognised as sentient beings under the law.

Then, on 13th May, the efforts of compassionate people around the country finally worked in British animals’ favour. The UK Government announced it would introduce the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill as part of its ‘Action Plan for Animal Welfare’.

During the summer and autumn of 2021, the Bill progressed through the House of Lords, completing all its stages by December 2021.

2022: A Victory for Animal Sentience

On Thursday 7th April, we achieved a momentous victory for animals. 

The updated Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill was voted through by the House of Lords which means that animals are legally recognised as sentient beings once again.

2023: Animal Sentience Committee Announced

The UK Government's announcement of the membership of the Animal Sentience Committee is a significant step for animal welfare. The Committee contains participants from the RSPCA, veterinary professionals and zoological specialists and researchers. We welcome their appointment in ensuring the Government accounts for animal welfare throughout policy creation, delivery and scrutiny.

Thank you to everyone who emailed politicians or signed petitions, donated in response to this campaign, shared posts on social media, and asked friends and family to take action.



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