Gove promises that UK law will recognise animal sentience – but...

24 November 2017
By Dr Alasdair Cochrane

Michael Gove released a statement on Thursday confirming that after Brexit, animals will continue to be recognised as sentient beings: that is, as individuals capable of feeling pain and emotion. The statement emerged after a furore this week over MPs’ decision to reject Caroline Lucas’s amendment to include this formal recognition of animal sentience in the EU (Withdrawal) Bill.

Campaigners argued that the decision of the UK marked a significant step backwards in its commitment to animal protection.  And they pointed out that it flies in the face of scientific orthodoxy and our ordinary moral convictions. Behavioural, neurological and physiological evidence all supports the view that a wide range of non-human animals are sentient beings with conscious experience. Furthermore, the latest evidence suggests that more animals than we realised are sentient, and that the depth and richness of animal experiences are far greater than we previously thought. Crucially, of course, we now accept that the simple fact of animal sentience has important moral and political consequences: at the very least, it gives us an obligation to reflect on how our decisions affect other sentient creatures, and to constrain our actions as a result.

By refusing to incorporate EU law in which animals are currently recognised as sentient beings means that unless further legislation is passed, upon the UK’s exit from the EU, the country’s law will no longer recognise animals as beings capable of feeling pleasure, pain, joy, or suffering. Instead, it will regard them as equivalent to rocks, bicycles, or as Caroline Lucas put it during the debate over the bill, “sacks of potatoes”.

Michael Gove, the government and MPs have responded that they are not idiots and that all of this is “fake news”. They say that it is beyond question that animals are sentient, that existing legislation recognises this fact and that the “…government will ensure that any necessary changes required to UK law are made in a rigorous and comprehensive way to ensure animal sentience is recognised after we leave the EU.

But such reassurances still leave me worried.

In the first place, if it is indeed beyond question that animals have sentience, why reject the amendment?  Gove argues that the Withdrawal Bill is ‘not the right place’ to recognise animal sentience.  But the Bill seems like a far better place to recognise it than a Statement rushed out in response to pressure from animal advocates.

Furthermore, it is quite wrong to suggest that existing legislation formally recognises animal sentience: it does not.  And while it is obviously true that we have a number of animal welfare laws, those laws can be amended, watered down and repealed.  Formal recognition of animal sentience – which was guaranteed by EU law – obstructs any such backward steps, and also puts us in line with other countries around the world.

For example, the Indian constitution enshrines a duty on all citizens to “have compassion for living creatures”, and grants legal standing to animals’ representatives. The Brazilian Constitution requires the government to “protect the flora and fauna” and to prohibit practices which “subject animals to cruelty.” The Swiss Constitution has enshrined animal protection in its constitution, mandating legislation on animal protection in a range of contexts, and recognising the dignity of all living beings, including animals. Since 2002 the German Constitution has included animal protection as a state objective. And France, Portugal and New Zealand have all recently recognised the legal status of animals as “sentient beings”.

Gove suggests in his statement that if it is deemed ‘necessary’ the UK might follow these states’ examples, and make its own changes to UK law to recognise animal sentience.  But given that he has already told us that it is not necessary; and given the rejection of the amendment, how confident can we be about this promise?

In a post-Brexit future, where the UK is grasping for friendly trading partners while also trying to ensure a consistent supply of affordable food, there are genuine reasons to be concerned about the resilience of our animal welfare laws. I and others worry that the failure to recognise the sentience of animals has opened the door to a “race to the bottom” in terms of animal protection.

Michael Gove has claimed that he is genuinely committed to the highest animal welfare standards post-Brexit. His commitment to make CCTV mandatory in all slaughterhouses gives us some reason to be hopeful. But we would have much more reason to be hopeful if the amendment to recognise animal sentience had not been withdrawn. CCTV in slaughterhouses won’t improve the lives of animals much if our laws regard them as inanimate objects without the ability to feel pain and experience harm.