The politics of animal sentience

Posted on November 22, 2017 by Gudrun Ravetz

“MPs vote 'that animals cannot feel pain or emotions' into the Brexit bill”, shouted the Independent. “MPs vote to reject idea that animals can feel pain or emotions during Brexit bill discussions”, cried the Yorkshire Post.  

These alarming headlines spread across social media and veterinary forums like wildfire after a House of Commons vote on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill last week. Understandably, people were very upset, but what is the truth behind these statements?

The answer is that these sensationalist headlines failed to explain a more complex reality. 

Why the recognition of animal sentience is important

The amendment in question was tabled by Green MP Caroline Lucas, with cross-party support. It sought to enshrine into UK law an EU protocol on animal sentience which puts a duty on states to have regard for animal welfare in relation to formulating and implementing policy. Its origin is Article 13 of Title II of the Lisbon Treaty, which, because it is in a Treaty rather than in a Regulation, won’t automatically come over to UK law when we leave the EU.

It was an important vote, and BVA fully supported the amendment. But we have to be clear that it was not a vote on whether or not animals can feel pain. Headlines suggesting that the Government MPs who voted the amendment down don’t believe in animal sentience are a misreading of the situation at best.

BVA does believe that the provisions contained in Article 13 must be brought into UK legislation. Yes, as Ministers argue, we have the Animal Welfare Acts in the four countries of the UK and they are some of the best pieces of welfare legislation in the world. But they don’t state that all animals are sentient beings, and, vitally, they don’t explicitly put the duty on the state to consider animal welfare when developing and implementing other policies. This is an important distinction.

In our statement following the vote we expressed concern that by rejecting this duty, the UK was sending the wrong message to the global community about our ongoing commitment to high animal welfare standards. And, as BVA has continually argued, maintaining and enhancing animal welfare standards must be our trade USP post-Brexit. As animal welfare science progresses, we must have an overarching recognition in legislation of the sentience of all animals, to underpin all government policies.

Ministers have suggested that there are other ways to enshrine this concept into UK law, for example by making a statement on the floor of the House (a rather quaint way of putting into public record the Government’s intentions). But we have consulted with Mike Radford, an expert in animal welfare law at the University of Aberdeen, and when we asked if this would be sufficient his answer was an emphatic no.

Next steps

So, what do we need to do?

There are myriad petitions and letters flying around the internet and members and campaigners have been in touch to ask us to support them. The problem is many of them miss the mark in their wording and it wouldn’t be appropriate for BVA to publicly support them. Behind the scenes, we have been lobbying Defra and raising the issue with ministers in the devolved administrations. Whatever solution we come up with must be applicable across the whole of the UK.

We will keep the pressure up through the media and lobbying activity. The next major opportunity will be when the Bill reaches the House of Lords and we will be working with our honorary associates and other Peers to push for a new amendment. We are looking at ways to harness the support of our active members and we’re grateful to everyone who has already been in touch with us to share their views.

Please share this blog and the BVA statement with friends and colleagues. Consider writing to your MP to express your views. And look out for our activity via our social media and emails.

23 November Update

On 23 November Defra Secretary of State Michael Gove announced the Government’s position on animal sentience. In response BVA is calling for clarity on how and when the Government intends to ensure legislative change to recognise sentience. We will continue to press the Government on this point.

More information

Gudrun Ravetz

Written by Gudrun Ravetz

BVA past President

Gudrun currently works as a Veterinary Consultant for Denplan and is an interviewer for prospective students at University of Liverpool. Gudrun was previously President of the Society for Practising Veterinary Surgeons (SPVS). Follow @RavetzGudrun on Twitter.