Animals’ sentiency a balancing act for politicians in Brexit talks
Reaction to Parliament voting to remove a line from the Lisbon Treaty shows the UK is a nation of animal lovers
JUGGLING the welfare of animals with their use in society is the balancing act faced by Parliament as it seeks to define sentience in UK law.
The government split the draft Animal Welfare bill into two parts (news, 16 August), sentencing for animal abuse and the definition of animal sentience, which was welcomed by welfare charities and the Countryside Alliance.
A media storm erupted in November 2017 after MPs voted not to include the definition of animal sentience as set out in the Lisbon Treaty into UK law.
In a statement, Defra secretary Michael Gove assured the nation the vote was against a “faulty amendment” that would not have provided appropriate protection for animals, and “any necessary changes” would be made to UK law to ensure animal sentience is recognised after Brexit.
Dr Jonathan Merritt, senior lecturer in law at De Montfort University, presented Brexit, horses and animal sentience, of which he is a co-author, at a Horses in Culture, Society and Law symposium at the University of Buckingham on 19 September.
He said the reaction to the removal of “a line or two in the small print of Brexit” shows that the UK public are animal lovers.
“We focused on horses because that’s our research basis, but also because there’s quite strong evidence that there is some sort of unusual subliminal link between the species,” said Dr Merritt, adding no other species has the same relationship with humans.
He added the “bigger question” is whether the public can trust the government to find a better definition than that in the Lisbon Treaty, which itself has loopholes.
Mr Merritt said he predicts the UK will end up with a policy that recognises sentience up to a point, without outlawing issues such as transport, sport and slaughter.
“I don’t think we are going to get an animal welfare law that says, ‘You have to treat them in a quasi-human way’,” he added.
“I don’t think it’s going to be very different from the European one, it will say we need to recognise they are sentient but we also have to recognise different religious practices and that we need them in the ecosystem.”
RSPCA head of public affairs David Bowles said defining which animals are sentient is “probably the easiest question to answer” as that is defined in science.
“The knotty thing is having decided animals are sentient and need protection, they have to work out how to do that, what the policies are and balance those with human needs,” he said.
He added the RSPCA is working with Defra to ensure the new policy is as robust as possible, while taking into consideration pressure on Parliament in the runup to the March Brexit deadline.
The Countryside Alliance said it will “continue to work with the government to ensure sensible and practical proposals are brought forward on both sentience and sentencing.”
It is thought the new definition of sentience will be similar to EU law