By Claire Bass
While many of our Humane Society International colleagues are responding to the crisis in Ukraine, they continue to advance the vital priority campaigns that are the main focus of their work. In the United Kingdom, that includes the recent passage of “sentience” legislation that requires government ministers across all departments to take animal welfare into account when making and implementing laws and policies. HSI/UK executive director Claire Bass and her team have spearheaded the campaign to establish critical new legal protections for animals. I’ve invited Claire to share details of this extremely important step forward for animals.
In the United Kingdom this week, we are celebrating the passage of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill through Parliament, a campaign that Humane Society International/UK and our British supporters have fought hard for since 2019. This vital legislation will provide legal recognition that all vertebrate animals, decapod crustaceans (such as lobsters) and cephalopods (such as octopuses) have the capacity for feelings and emotions, both positive and negative. In light of this sentience, the bill requires ministers across all government departments to take animal welfare into account when making and implementing laws and policies.
The legislation is a fitting anniversary gift to animals, because on July 22 it will be 200 years since the U.K. passed its first animal protection law. Martin’s Act was a piece of legislation that marked the beginning of a long and ongoing social revolution in attitudes toward the treatment and protection of animals, both in the U.K. and globally.
Until the early 19th century, British law said the legal responsibilities for the owner of a cow, for example, were no different from those for the owner of a shovel; both were simply property. Barrister and philosopher Jeremy Bentham laid the foundations to change that with his 1781 thesis, Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, which set forth the now-famous proposition for animals: ‘The question is not, Can they reason? Nor Can they talk? But Can they suffer?”
The first attempt for a bill to protect animals, in 1809, was defeated in the House of Commons, but in 1822 Richard Martin, William Wilberforce and other MPs successfully passed a law that made it an offence to “wantonly and cruelly ill-treat or beat” cattle, horses and sheep, amongst other animals.
Fast forward to 1997, and past dozens of laws aimed at preventing animal cruelty and suffering, and the government of the U.K., then a member of the European Union, championed the inclusion of a declaration of animal sentience in the Treaty of Amsterdam. This was later upgraded into a legal article in the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, requiring that the EU and its member nations pay “full regard to the welfare requirements of animals” when formulating and implementing a wide range of policies, including those related to agriculture and research.
The U.K.’s protracted departure from the EU (known as Brexit) was completed on Dec. 31, 2020, and since then the EU’s sentience recognition article has not applied. Determined to ensure that Brexit would lead to more, not less, legal protection for animals, over the last five years HSI/UK and our colleagues at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Compassion in World Farming and Wildlife and Countryside Link have led a campaign backed by 50 animal protection organisations united in calling for a #BetterDealForAnimals. The central focus of this work has been to ensure meaningful recognition of animal sentience in U.K. law.
We have lobbied vigorously for sentience recognition, and for the bill’s creation of a new Animal Sentience Committee, an independent expert body that will scrutinize whether government is properly protecting animals’ welfare needs. The committee will also publish recommendations for improvements.
Our success this week has been a direct result of people power impact in Parliament. Hundreds of thousands of animal advocates took action, signing our petitions, emailing their members of Parliament and ministers, and showing their support for the protection of animals on social media. During debates on the bill, several MPs directly referenced the enormous public support for the bill. This, and strong cross-party political support, left the government with no option but to deliver.
Sometimes emailing decision-makers can feel like shouting into a tornado; we all want urgent change for animals, but political policy processes are often frustratingly slow and fraught with setbacks. But this week is a solid reminder of how much power and impact we have to improve the lives of animals when we speak with one voice.
What’s next for animal protection laws in the U.K.? Armed with the new Animal Sentience Act, we will be able to push for more thorough and transparent consideration of animals’ welfare needs, with shortfalls and missed opportunities scrutinised and judged by the new Animal Sentience Committee, by Parliament, and of course by the court of public opinion.
We know, from a recent poll we commissioned with YouGov, that 87% of Brits want the government to either maintain (24%) or increase (63%) its level of action on animal protection. Animals matter to voters, and we will continue to work with all political parties to encourage them to deliver on the public’s high expectations.
On May 10, the government will set out, via the queen’s speech, its plans and ambitions for the next parliamentary session. We are pushing hard for government to make good on its commitments to animals, including by introducing the Animals Abroad Bill to ban imports of cruel animal products. The government’s proposed ban on imports of hunting trophies would cover almost 7,000 species, and there is enormous public, political and celebrity support behind our campaign for a #FurFreeBritain with a ban on fur imports and sales.
Our animal laws, and our understanding of the science and ethics of animal welfare and protection, have advanced tremendously since 1822, but there is so much more to do. Our recognition of animal sentience, and a new political accountability to animals and their needs, will be the foundation for more enlightened and compassionate laws and policies for generations to come.