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Animal Sentience: The Conservatives would be unwieldy to vote against

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The Animal Welfare Bill (Sentience) is a Conservative Party manifesto from 2019 and the “heart” of the government’s action plan on animal welfare.

The bill establishes an Animal Welfare Committee (ASC) with the power to report on whether the government “takes due account of all the ways in which policies could adversely affect the welfare of animals as sentient animals”.

Even so, the Animal Sensitivity Act has sparked considerable debate among the Lords. The Times has reported that a small group of Tory Lords and party donors have written to the Prime Minister expressing reservations about the law. The petitioners fear that the law could block infrastructure projects and be “hijacked” by activists.

The draft law on sensitivity is intended to replace the loss of recognition of sensitivities and the obligation of EU member states to “take full account” of animal welfare requirements in the formulation and implementation of policies.

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The EU’s sensibility policy has been included in Article 13 of Title II of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). As primary Union law, it was therefore not included in the EU Withdrawal Act.

Sensation refers to the ability to have awareness, feelings, and emotions. Sentient animals can experience joy and pain. Just like us humans, sentient animals have lives that can go well or bad.

Sensation is a complex concept and also relates to different levels of consciousness and cognitive abilities. The important point, however, is that government action can have a huge impact on their wellbeing, as sentient animals can feel joy and suffer.

Which sentient animals could the calculation help? Well, in the UK we raise and slaughter over a billion farm animals every year. Over 95% of them are meat chickens. We consume an estimated four to five billion marine animals annually. Many of them will be sentient and millions of crabs, lobsters, crustaceans and octopuses are virtually invisible under British law.

We carry out three to four experimental procedures on laboratory animals every year. We keep ten million dogs, ten million cats and around a million horses. I suspect that the number of sentient wildlife affected by government policies will be on the order of millions, if not billions, annually.

What kind of issues could the Animal Welfare Committee report on? Personally, I would like the committee’s agenda to be determined by the magnitude of the effects of government policy on sentient animals. The extent of the impact can be assessed based on the severity of the impact (assuming a negative one) as well as the duration of the impact and the number of animals affected.

The committee should also focus on the welfare effects of government policies that could most easily be mitigated. I suspect that there should be significant low-slope fruit in order for the committee to facilitate a more streamlined consideration of the animal welfare impact in policy-making, with significant and undisputed benefits for animal welfare.

Look at a few examples. Lameness in chickens is a major welfare problem. We eat over a billion chickens every year. But genetic selection for rapid growth means many suffer from painful lameness in the last two weeks of their brief six-week life.

Professor John Webster, a pioneer of animal welfare, wrote that poultry meat “is, in both its size and heaviness, the most grave systematic example of man’s inhumanity towards another sentient animal”. Research by the Scottish Rural College has found that a third of fast growing chickens suffer from lameness and high mortality.

The numbers mean that around 330 million sentient birds are suffering. Government policies could encourage commercially viable chickens with lower growth rates. Public procurement to provide higher welfare chickens for the NHS, schools and the army would directly increase the welfare of millions of sentient birds each year.

Government policies to protect fish and other marine life have great potential to improve the lives of billions of sentient animals each year. The current priority is to ensure that cephalopods (octopus and squid) and decapods (crabs and lobsters) are included in the scope of the bill based on good scientific evidence on sentience.

Fish protection has been neglected by government and society, including in animal welfare research. Despite evidence of sentience in decipedes and crustaceans, they are largely outside the scope of animal welfare laws. This is despite the fact that British society consumes around four to five billion marine animals each year.

Given the current widespread suffering, regulation and enforcement in fish and other marine animals, the Animal Welfare Committee will be able to make great strides on welfare.

The list goes on. But I want to show the importance of sensitivity legislation by illustrating how current government policies preclude consideration of animal welfare impacts. Government direct spending on animal welfare is tiny, at less than a cent per sentient animal. In addition, the DEFRA budget was cut year after year after the financial crisis in 2007.

The department, including its animal welfare team, was decimated and officials reported in interviews that they were unable to do their jobs properly due to a lack of resources.

Consider the Government’s Green Paper, Central Government’s Guide to Assessing and Evaluating Policy Options. On the 152 pages of the central government guidelines there is not a single reference to “animal”, let alone “animal welfare” or “sentient animal”. Ditto for the 2020 Treasury Spending Review. Not a single reference to sentience or animal welfare.

With some knowledge of how the British government takes the interests of sentient species into account, it is extraordinary to read articles like Viscount Lord Matt Ridley’s in the Times. Ridley claims that the Sensience Act was some kind of gesture policy related to media attention in 2017.

Above I tried to paint a picture of how big the effects of government policy are on sentient animals and how government policy excludes their interests (the reasons for this are beyond the scope of this short article). With those points in mind, the claim that awareness-raising legislation is unnecessary is incredible.

The Sensitivity Bill and Animal Sensitivity Committee have the potential to improve the lives of billions of living things. The government must not be unduly influenced by party donors and the landed nobility.

Likewise, Parliament should not be outwitted by shrewd sophistry masking a hollow libertarian ideology that does not recognize the duties of enlightened governance based on modern science in a civilized nation bound by the recognition of sentience.

The Conservative Party was elected on the basis of a manifesto pledging to “introduce new laws on animal sensitivity”. The UK public has (rightly) high levels of sentience concern, as evidenced by animal welfare issues being consistently the largest DEFRA mailbag.

The Sentience Law has strong support from organizations such as the British Veterinary Association (BVA), the RSPCA, and the UK Center for Animal Law. The Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation works on behalf of its MPs and colleagues to support the law.

Such broad support from organizations that exist to protect and promote animal welfare would be unlikely if the Awareness Act were some kind of gesture policy.

Strong awareness raising legislation is essential if the UK is to remain a world leader in animal welfare. At the electoral level, the Sentiment Act is an open goal of the Conservative Party to improve its standing in animal welfare. Sentient animals would vote with their paws, fins, and wings for better protection from the bill. Political animals in the parliamentary Conservative Party would have a hard time voting against it.

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