On the subject of the protection given to, and the status of, animals, currently the UK has some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world. Ministers have been clear that they intend it to remain world-leading in the future and, as a minimum, to retain our existing standards of animal welfare once we have left the EU.
The EU (Withdrawal) Bill will convert the existing body of direct EU animal welfare laws to become UK laws. Most of these EU laws relate to farmed animals and many were passed after Article 13 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) came into effect.
Based on the UK’s Animal Welfare Act, the Animal Protection Index, maintained by World Animal Protection, rates the UK’s formal recognition of animal sentience as grade A. Other Lisbon Treaty signatories such as France, Italy and Spain do not enjoy this rating, having each received grade C.
Article 13 of the TFEU created a qualified obligation on the EU and Member States “to have full regard to the welfare of animals [as they are sentient beings]” when formulating and implementing EU law. The Government has said that it will consider how the ‘animal sentience’ principle of Article 13 might be explicitly reflected in the UK when we leave the EU.
Having looked into this matter I understand the main reason for the EU move was to harmonise the legal status of animals under the French Civil Code with its Penal and Rural Codes, which already recognised animals as having interests that could not apply to inanimate property. It made no change to the protections animals enjoy.
However, UK laws are arranged differently so it is not possible to draw a direct comparison between our legal regimes, but I note that French legislators explicitly rejected bans on bullfighting and cockfighting, both of which are illegal here.
The fact that Britain already has in place the Animal Welfare Act 2006 was apparently overlooked by some who moved an amendment that would have duplicated somewhat existing animal welfare law. The majority of MPs took the view that the amendment was defective and the amendment was rejected.
However, animals are sentient beings who can feel pain and suffering, so I am delighted that the Government is taking action to write this principle into law in a free-standing piece of legislation, ensuring that their welfare can be protected for decades to come.
The draft Animal Welfare (Sentencing and Recognition of Sentience) Bill was published on 12 December 2017. It sets out that the Government “must have regard to the welfare needs of animals as sentient beings in formulating and implementing government policy”.
At the same time, the law will also increase the sentences available to the courts in the most severe cases of animal cruelty to up to five years’ imprisonment. Subject to consultation, Ministers will legislate to deliver both aims.
This comes as part of a wider programme of reform to cement the UK’s position as a global leader on animal welfare. Other recent steps include announcing plans to make CCTV mandatory in all abattoirs to ensure animals are treated humanely at the end of their lives, banning microbeads that can harm marine life and introducing Europe’s most comprehensive ban on the ivory trade, to protect the lives of endangered African elephants.
Once we have left the EU, we could do even more. EU rules prevent us from restricting or banning live animal export, cracking down on puppy smuggling or banning the import of puppies under six months. We are a nation of animal lovers so I am pleased at the commitment this Government has shown to making Brexit work not just for citizens, but for the animals we love and cherish too.