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Animal Welfare Bill rethink underway after representations from countryside groups

The Government has promised to ‘further refine’ proposals to recognise animal sentience in law after the Countryside Alliance warned they could be hijacked by animal rights activists.


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Animal Welfare Bill rethink underway after representations from countryside groups

The plans were set out in the draft Animal Welfare Bill, which was hurriedly published following a public outcry prompted by Ministers’ failure to support an animal sentience amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill.

 

This amendment would have forced the Government to pay regard to animal welfare in formulating policy.

 

In its response to the consultation on the draft Bill, the Countryside Alliance suggested this duty, balanced only by a need to consider the ‘public interest’, could provide an opportunity for the activities of farmers and land managers to be curtailed.

 

The group also questioned how the duty would work where there was a conflict between the welfare of domesticated animals and wild animals, as in the case of badgers and cattle where bovine TB is concerned.


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MPs on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee criticised the Government too, describing the legislation as ‘rushed’ and pointing out Defra would need extra cash to ‘sign off’ any other Department’s policy proposals on animal welfare grounds.

 

Now the Government has pledged to refine the proposals, while plans in the original Bill to increase maximum sentences for animal cruelty from six months to five years in prison will be brought forward in separate legislation.

 

Countryside Alliance chief executive Tim Bonner said: “Bringing forward such a broad piece of animal welfare legislation in this Parliament was always going to difficult and time consuming, and we are pleased the Government appears to have recognised these concerns in their new approach.

 

“The vast majority of the 73,000 responses to the consultation were generated by online platforms, highlighting that much of the concern around animal sentience has been manufactured by social media animal rights activism.

 

“This cannot be the basis for legislating and we will continue to work with the Government to ensure that sensible and practical proposals are brought forward on both sentencing and sentience.”

While the Countryside Alliance recognises the fact that animals are sentient beings, it raised concerns about creating an open-ended duty on Ministers to have regard to animal welfare across all government policy without any clear definition or limit.

 

The Countryside Alliance supported plans to increase sentencing for the most serious animal welfare offences but stressed the need for the CPS to play a more active role in prosecution to avoid giving even greater power to private charities, such as a RSPCA.

 

Countryside Alliance Chief Executive, Tim Bonner, commented: "Bringing forward such a broad piece of animal welfare legislation in this Parliament was always going to difficult and time consuming, and we are pleased that the Government appears to have recognised these concerns in their new approach.

 

"The vast majority of the 73,000 responses to the consultation were generated by online platforms, highlighting that much of the concern around animal sentience has been manufactured by social media animal rights activism. This cannot be the basis for legislating and we will continue to work with the Government to ensure that sensible and practical proposals are brought forward on both sentencing and sentience".

 

It is also unclear whether in formulating or implementing policy animal welfare is to be understood as relating to the overall welfare of a species or to an individual animal, or where there is a conflict between species which species’s welfare takes precedence.

Similarly, where there is a conflict between the welfare of domesticated animals and wild animals, as in the case of badgers and cattle, how would this new duty work?

 

Several terms in the draft Bill were not explicitly defined and we invited views on how we might do so as part of the public consultation exercise. The House of Commons’ Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee also expressed views on these (and other) matters.

 

Additionally, Defra asked the Farm Animal Welfare Committee to review the scientific evidence submitted during the consultation and provide advice on some of the potential definitions in the draft Bill, including definitions for ‘sentience’, ‘animal’ and the ‘welfare needs of animals’.

 

Defra received 9,084 direct responses to the consultation, of which 8,871 (98%) were from individuals, and 191 (2%) were from organisations.

 

Defra also received 64,169 responses from the campaign organisation 38 Degrees, who conducted their own survey of the public

 

The government notes the concerns raised by the House of Commons’ Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee and the breadth of comments received to the consultation.

 

The government also notes the proposal brought forward by Lord Trees during the passage of the EU Withdrawal Act to place a duty on ministers to report regularly to parliament on how they pay due regard to the needs of animals as sentient beings.

 

Bearing these representations in mind Defra will continue to engage with stakeholders over the coming months to further refine the government’s proposals on sentience.

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