The MPs who voted against an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill by Green MP Caroline Lucas were not prepared for what happened next. The motion was about the precise wording of an EU treaty which explicitly describes animals as “sentient beings”. But the Independent reported the story as “The Tories have voted that animals can’t feel pain”. Cue internet outrage.
Rachel Maclean, MP for Redditch County, denounced it as “fake news”.
So disappointing to have to combat fake news. Neither I nor any other Conservative MP voted against animals as sentient beings. This government cares deeply about animal welfare and has done more to protect with more measures on the way. This is mischief making pure and simple pic.twitter.com/0nCkdaddwf
— Rachel Maclean MP (@redditchrachel) November 21, 2017
Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow, responded to “many of my constituents” with an open letter declaring the accusation was “outrageous” and added, just for clarification, “I do believe animals are sentient beings.” He said his vote against the amendment was only in order to “push forward Brexit”.
Heidi Allen, the MP for South Cambridgeshire, reminded constituents that “there are few things that upset me more than needless cruelty to animals”.
The Conservative Government and @michaelgove have done a great deal to protect animals inc. increasing animal cruelty sentences to 5 years and installing CCTV in slaughterhouses. We have world leading animal welfare law and and we will be able to strengthen it on leaving the EU pic.twitter.com/fPeJaGDBLR
— Robert Halfon MP (@halfon4harlowMP) November 23, 2017
David Cameron’s successor as MP for Witney, Robert Courts, quoted Hansard:
MPs did not vote against recognising animal sentience. The amendment was not necessary as it is already covered in UK law & I am proud that we already have extremely high animal welfare standards. Below is the response from @DominicRaab in this debate which sets this out clearly: pic.twitter.com/jy0ALSpSfj
— Robert Courts MP (@robertcourts) November 21, 2017
The Rural Conservative Movement indulged in some whataboutery:
@AMDWaters is absolutely right. There is a bizarre loophole in animal welfare legislation which allows for the unstunned slaughtering of livestock for religious reasons. Both halal and kosher slaughter should be banned because of the gratuitous distress & pain caused to animals. https://t.co/mwYriOxZP2
— Rural Conservative Movement (@RuralConserv) November 21, 2017
Meanwhile, Tory backroom staff have produced a helpful fact-checking video for beleaguered MPs to share.
Here are the facts on the Conservative Governments record on animal welfare. We now want to go even further and become a world leader in protecting animals. pic.twitter.com/fgmKBJyarb
— Steve Baker MP (@SteveBakerHW) November 24, 2017
The Tories are right – in the fact that they were voting primarily against the amendment because it is an obstacle to Brexit, and there is existing UK legislation that recognises the principle of animal sentience. Of course, it may not turn out that all EU laws have such handy replacements in UK law.
Still, even if this was less a vote about animals and more about Brexit, the idea that Tory MPs don’t have animal pain at the top of the agenda might seem obvious, given the enthusiasm within the party at large for, as Stephen Bush put it, the right to “don a silly outfit and chase a fox through the countryside and get your dogs to rip it apart while it’s still alive”.