The vote in Westminster last week to reject the proposed amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill that would have effectively transposed Article 13 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) has been met with furore. Some of this has been misguided. It’s clearly nonsense to claim that MPs decided that animals are not sentient , for example. Equally, it’s misleading to claim that the content of Article 13 is already to be found in UK and indeed Scottish law.
Article 13 recognises that animals are sentient, but, more importantly, it requires that “In formulating and implementing the Union’s agriculture, fisheries, transport, internal market, research and technological development and space policies, the Union and the Member States shall, since animals are sentient beings, pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animal”. Essentially it is a fundamental principle that requires subsequent policy-making in a wide range of areas to consider animal welfare.
This bears repeating: governments are obliged under the Treaty to pay full regard to animal welfare, and they must do this because animals are sentient beings – which is not disputed.
The UK has a long history of animal welfare legislation, but there is nothing on the books in Westminster or the devolved administrations that does what Article 13 does. Almost 200 years ago Richard Martin’s Act (1822) was passed at Westminster to prevent the cruel and improper treatment of cattle, and since then progress has continued in fits and starts. These laws have, however, always been narrow in scope, focused on specific animals and/or acts of cruelty. The Animal Welfare Act (2006) and its counterpart in Scotland, the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 provide overarching legislation to protect certain categories of animals. Some have argued that this protection is sufficient to make further incorporation of Article 13 into English or Scottish law unnecessary. However, this is demonstrably not the case, for two fundamental reasons:
- The Acts only apply to animals that are “under control of man”, i.e. companion and farm animals, or captive animals. Indeed, the Prime Minister herself reminded us of this fact yesterday in PMQs.
- Unlike Article 13, the Acts do not establish a requirement for future policy and law making to pay regard to the welfare of animals.
Losing the animal sentience principle and the welfare requirement within policy and law making can only, therefore, be defined as a reduction in animal welfare standards. This is why OneKind, like other animal welfare charities, has welcomed UK Environment Secretary Michael Gove’s recent announcement that the sentience of animals will continue to be recognised and protections strengthened when we leave the EU, and that whilst the EU (Withdrawal) Bill is not, in the UK Government’s view, the place to transpose Article 13, it will “consider the right legislative vehicle” to achieve this .
This raises an important question about whether the right legislative vehicle is at the UK level, the devolved administration level, or both. Already there appears to be a fair bit of confusion around devolution. Even Michael Gove in his statement talks about improving animal welfare in the UK and lists initiatives such as mandatory CCTV in slaughterhouses that will not apply in Scotland. Animal welfare is in fact largely a devolved matter, with overarching and specific animal welfare legislation made at the national rather than the UK level. The only exception to this rule is the law that governs the welfare standards for animals in science.
It would therefore make sense for the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Governments to work in parallel to the Westminster Government to consider where the content of Article 13 could best be emulated in the national statute books. Whilst doing this, it should be considered how we could improve on Article 13, because it is far from perfect.
The Scottish Government have already indicated their willingness to consider this. Yesterday they announced that “We fully accept the principle of animal sentience, which underlies our current welfare legislation. We may consider formally recognising this in future Scottish legislation, if required”. This is a very welcome response, but with the Brexit deadline fast approaching, it will need to be acted upon quickly if we’re not to risk the erosion of animal welfare standards in Scotland as of 19th March 2017.