Lobsters and octopuses have feelings, according to a new animal welfare bill – so will UK law change?

Thanks to new legislation, animals will soon be recognized as “sentient beings” in UK law. Sensitivity is not defined in the new Animal Welfare (Sensitivity) Bill, but it is generally understood as the ability to feel. Why, you might be wondering, does the UK need a law to declare the patently obvious (and scientifically verified) makes animals have feelings?

Britain before had “to take full account of the welfare requirements” of animals as “sentient beings” when implementing EU policies. Some parliamentarians dreaded that in the absence of a similar provision in domestic law, animals would be left in a more perilous situation after Brexit.

Two attempts – the first by opposition MPs then the government – failed to include anything akin to the EU animal welfare obligation in UK law. Now, four and a half years later, the current bill has passed all parliamentary hurdles and awaits Royal Assent.

So how will the new law change the situation for animals living in the UK?

What’s in the bill?

What is interesting in this bill is not that it says that animals are sentient, but that it specifies which animals are sentient. In addition to all vertebrate animals (animals with backbones such as mammals, birds and fish), legislation understand certain invertebrates, including lobsters, crabs and octopus. This is progress compared to Animal Welfare Act 2006 of England and Wales, which – with its Scottish and Northern Irish equivalents – only applies to to vertebrates.

The bill also establishes an Animal Sensitivities Committee, which will report on how government policies affect animal welfare and may recommend further changes to how those policies are developed and implemented. . The Secretary of State should respond to these reports to parliament within three months of their publication.

Response to the bill has been mixed. Animal welfare campaigners hailed him as “a victorious day for animals”, “unprecedented legal advances” and “a big step towards the recognition of the rights of other animals”. On the other hand, his Conservative counterpart Lord Moylan, excoriated law for contributing to what he called the “deeply anti-human” agenda of the animal rights movement. Others were more jaded. Baroness Jones of the Green Party describe as “better than nothing”.

What to expect

What can those who want an improvement in the legal treatment of animals expect? Legal recognition of the sentience of some invertebrates may lead to more animal-friendly interpretations of current thinness protections. For example, the current law forbidden kill invertebrates in a way that causes avoidable suffering. Despite this, lobsters and crabs are routinely boiled alive in seafood restaurants. Hopefully, with invertebrate susceptibility in the spotlight, the limited laws already in place will be better enforced against extremely cruel practices.

The inclusion of certain invertebrates in the bill could prompt further reform. Amending the Animal Welfare Act to include these animals would ensure that they have some legal protection at all stages of captivity, not just at the time of killing. More detailed regulations on invertebrate welfare and a ban on certain slaughter methods – such as live boiling – would be welcome changes.

A committee with the power to review government policy could also drive a more unified approach to animal welfare in law-making. There are already specialist bodies responsible for advising the government on animal welfare in Agriculture and Scientific Research, but the remit of the new committee covers all areas of government policy. This could include, for example, assessing the impact of commercial agreements about international animal welfare standards or how HS2 railway line could affect wildlife.

Committee reports could help make animal welfare considerations common to all departments. And the Secretary of State responding to these reports could increase accountability and transparency on animal welfare issues in parliament.

Under the new bill, the government would have to respond to reports from an animal welfare commission to parliament.
Sandra Mori/Shutterstock

There are, however, important limitations to this legislation. The bill does not legally oblige the government to consider animals in the policies it develops, let alone demonstrate improvements for their welfare. The government is only required to respond to reports of the Animal Sentience Committee and has no responsibility to implement any of its recommendations.

The bill also does not specify how this committee will be appointed, funded or constituted. There is a risk that it will find itself crammed with government or industry aligned figures who lack the independence or expertise to effectively scrutinize policy.

The law was also designed minimize the possibility of further judicial reviews of government policy. This means the chances of this legislation being used to take the government to court for failing to give due consideration to animal welfare are slim.

Given the bill’s lack of detail and teeth, it may offer little tangible benefit to animals. Even the much-vaunted inclusion of invertebrates in the bill was quickly downplayed by the government, which stress that it would have “no direct impact on the shellfish fishing or restaurant industry”. In other words, simply acknowledging the sentience of invertebrates does not imply a departure from the status quo.

The Animal Welfare (Sensitivity) Bill is a symbolic step and could open space for more responsible and responsive government policy and public debate. But it doesn’t do it automatically. Continued scrutiny and pressure from the animal protection movement will be essential to turn the lofty ideals that underpin the legislation into practical improvements for the lives of animals.

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