Do you believe that Jewish and Muslim methods of animal slaughter should be banned? That the use of animals in medical research should be barred? That angling and fishing should be made illegal – along with breeding horses and rearing pigs?
There is a case for and against all these proposals. And the place where they should be debated and decided is in Parliament – so that they can be considered by people we can put in or throw out at the ballot box, and who are thus accountable to us.
They should not be subject to a quango of bureaucrats. But that is precisely what the Government’s Animal Sentience Bill, the Report Stage of which opens in the Lords today, is about to do, according to its critics. They claim that a committee that the Bill will set up could rule on animal rights as well as animal welfare.
“The danger with this legislation is that it will become a vehicle to glue up government with an animal rights agenda that Parliament never intended and at its extreme is, frankly, bonkers, writes Nick Herbert, the Chair of the Countryside Alliance.
The core of the Government’s riposte is that the new committee won’t decide anything, but will merely make recommendations to Ministers. They are quietly offering reassurances about who might be appointed to it in due course by the Environment Secretary.
Boris Johnson has told Conservative peers that the committee will be “toothless, clawless and fangless”. Ministers are also saying that if they spurn its recommendations they will be safe from judicial review. All this looks problematic.
This Government won’t be around forever. Who might a future one appoint to the committee? As for judicial review, can Ministers really be so sure? After all, the Government is sufficiently displeased with the way it is used, according to today’s Times, as to threaten legislation striking down decisions that it doesn’t like.
And that the committee is intended to be toothless, clawless and fangless invites reflection. It either carries authority, which would better be deployed by people we elect. Or it doesn’t, in which case the question arises: what’s the point of it?
It’s reasonable to consider, say, the Committee on Climate Change, and ponder how government has taken to rubber-stamping its decisions. There’s no reason to think it would be any less pliant given the attitude of the public to animals.
To be clear: animal welfare is a good thing; some animals are clearly sentient, and we have had legislation protecting animals welfare for some two hundred years. The Bill has come about because of the exigencies of Brexit, which are in this instance unproblematic.
For the Government could have slapped a clause saying that it would “pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals” – or words equivalent to those in the Lisbon Treaty – into Brexit legislation, or indeed into other Bills. Two more animal-related ones were contained in the Queen’s Speech.
(Though one of them, the Animals Abroad Bill, has gone missing. Lord Ashcroft writes in the Daily Mail today about the lack of legislation in relation to the pledge in the last Conservative manifesto to “bring the ivory ban into force and extend it to cover other ivory-bearing species, and ban imports from trophy hunting of endangered animals”.)
The Bill has hung around in limbo since July, when it had its committee stage in the Lords. That its possible consequences have been coming home to Ministers may help account for the delay. “It should be stunned, slaughtered and put out of its misery,” one of them told me.
Nonetheless, everyone loves animals – by which I mean that most voters do, and the Prime Minister has been astute in suggesting that he feels the same way: after all, the Johnson household now has Dilyn in residence. So the Bill will doubtless find its way to Royal Assent. Legislate in haste, repent at leisure.