How the debate about animals feeling pain became headline news

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By Adiba Bassam on

Government has pledged to enshrine animal sentience into law, but how did we get here?

Recently, the debate about whether animals can feel pain has been headline news thanks to a vote on bringing EU legislation into UK law via the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.

Currently, animal sentience is recognised in the UK through Article 13 of Title II of the Lisbon Treaty, known as NC30. This specifically recognises that animals are sentient i.e. capable of feeling pain and emotions. Until we leave the EU NC30 applies as before, but in order to retain this specific law and the protection it affords post-March 2019 parliament must transfer it into UK law.

NC30 says the following:

“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 animals, while respecting the legislative or administrative provisions and customs of the Member States relating in particular to religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage.”

When voting on whether this should be transferred into domestic law, the vote did not pass and a media dispute arose about whether this means the UK does not recognise animals as sentient beings.

Campaigners as well as media outlets were quick to accuse the government of insensitivity towards animals — which is perhaps unsurprising looking at the current government’s approach to fox hunting and ivory trading bans. MP and Green Party co-chair Caroline Lucas urged the government to embrace NC30 into UK law. But does this vote actually mean animals are left unprotected?

Not so, according to the government. The government’s justification for its vote is that animals are adequately covered by the Animal Welfare Act 2006. However, a perusal of the act quickly reveals that sentience is not mentioned, nor does it cover all animals. The act only covers domestic animals, meaning that animals in the wild and in laboratories — arguably those that need protection the most — are not extended the same protection.

But the government isn’t bowing to the pressure to enshrine NC30.

Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, has said that sentience will be recognised post-Brexit and that his government would make changes as necessary to ensure this through UK law. Just this week, he pledged that new legislation will see animal abusers jailed for up to five years and promised a “Brexit for animals”. He added:

“Animals are sentient beings who feel pain and suffering, so we are writing that principle into law and ensuring that we protect their welfare.”

This has led to a sigh of relief from some campaigners while others remain sceptical, as transferring NC30 would have guaranteed a solution.

Ultimately, the government should have voted to transfer this crucial law, as it adds an additional layer of protection for animals in the UK and would ensure that they are as well protected post-Brexit as they are pre-Brexit.

I don’t think it was any of the 52%’s intention for animals to suffer as a result of their vote. The government should have followed the EU’s lead on animal sentience, as EU legislation has already made vast improvements to animals’ lives by, for example, banning cosmetics testing on animals. Making a promise to look into it and make changes is all well and good, however why fix something that is not broken? Why not keep NC30 and build on it if the true intention of the government is to improve animal welfare?

Adiba Bassam is a BPTC graduate and an aspiring barrister, currently working as a legal assistant at a London chambers.

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