Amongst the rancour, ridicule and extreme detail in the chamber of the House of Commons this week you’d be forgiven missing the importance of what’s being debated on Brexit this week. One issue which has been largely ignored among the bluster is animal protection, and today Parliament will debate an amendment of mine which aims to guarantee that animals don’t become collateral damage in this Brexit chaos. This amendment really matters – and there’s a real chance it could be successful.
Two decades ago, Britain used its presidency of the European Union to push for a groundbreaking change in the way animals were treated across the continent. A protocol adopted in 1999 meant that for the first time animals were to be regarded as sentient beings, not just agricultural goods, and future legislation must account of animal wellbeing.
It was an historic moment for animal protection. Since then it has informed over 20 pieces of European law on animal welfare, including the ban on conventional battery cages and the ban on cosmetics testing on animals.
In 2009, the original animal sentience protocol was incorporated into the Lisbon Treaty and agreed by every country in the EU. It requires policymakers to pay “full regard” to animal welfare in policymaking, since “animals are sentient beings”. It was a moment of celebration for campaigners, especially those in the UK who had been the driving force behind this win.
Sadly, with the Tories now marching the UK towards a chaotic Brexit, progress on animal welfare is under threat. The government has promised to transpose EU law into the British statute, but their plans mean withdrawing from the Lisbon treaty and thus risking the loss of the crucial animal sentience protocol contained in it. Michael Gove, the environment secretary, attempted to reassure Parliament on the issue, saying “I am an animal; we are all animals…I am predominantly herbivorous, I should add. It is an absolutely vital commitment that we have to ensure that all creation is maintained, enhanced and protected.”
We need more than just warm words from the government on this issue, which is why I’ve tabled an amendment to the Withdrawal Bill to incorporate animal sentience. The simple purpose of New Clause 30, which is supported by MPs from five parties, is that the key protocol (Article 13) is repatriated. So far no Tories are supporting the amendment, but Michael Gove’s apparent sympathy on the issue suggests that this might well change today.
Although England and Wales has one of the world’s oldest animal welfare laws and now has hundreds of laws aiming to improve animal welfare, the UK has no legal instrument other than Article 13 that states that animals are sentient beings. This is therefore an important ethical as well as practical statement that the UK government, as the original proposer of this idea, needs to ensure is part of the Brexit process.
If the environment secretary is serious about “all creation” being “maintained, enhanced and protected” then he should accept my amendment today. This could well be the first amendment to be adopted by the government, and doing so would be a real sign that they’re serious about protecting animals – and willing to work across party lines on shared concerns.