Government legislation causes animal rights controversy

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UNITED KINGDOM — The UK has had a long history of bringing in legislation to protect animals, beginning in 1822 with an Act to Prevent the Cruel and Improper Treatment of Cattle. The first general ‘protection of animals’ law was introduced in 1911. Since then, a widespread number of regulations have formed to protect animals from wildlife and farm animals to domestic pets,

However, there are still significant gaps in this legislation, and the British Pagan community remains vigilant. Issues such as the badger cull remain of great interest to the Pagan community, many of whom continue to be active against perceived animal cruelty. Fox hunting has now been banned in England. Despite that fact, a number of British Pagans continue to support the sabbing (hunt-saboteuring) movement, which now aims to keep an eye on trail hunting in an attempt to ensure that this does not cross over into illegal fox-hunting territory.

Further political controversy regarding animal-protection legislation was engendered on Nov 15 when, after an 8 hour debate, members of Parliament (MPs) voted not to retain the NC30 – the part of European law that holds that animals possess sentience and can feel pain and emotions. The vote could mean that issues surrounding sentience in different species may have to be argued on a case-by-case basis rather than being covered by blanket legislation.

The decision was made in the wake of the Brexit referendum, despite Environment Secretary Michael Gove’s call to improve animal welfare standards post-Brexit.

Despite the UK’s lengthy history of animal protection legislation as outlined above, 80% of that legislation comes from the EU. While pets will still be protected by the Animal Welfare Act of 2006, there are now concerns as to where the lack of legislation will leave wild animals.

This decision is perhaps unsurprising given the drive within the Conservative Party to bring back fox hunting. Prime Minister Theresa May has stated that the act banning such activity will remain in force for at least another 2 years.

The government claims that the animal protection legislation contained within NC30 was not rejected on ethical grounds, but rather because existing legislation already covers these issues, such as the Animal Welfare Act cited above.

However, David Bowles, the head of public affairs for the RSPCA, insists that “animal sentience is never mentioned in the Animal Welfare Act and, crucially, only domestic animals are really covered by the provisions of the Act anyway and animals in the wild and laboratories are expressly exempt. It is simply wrong for the Government to claim that the Act protects animal sentience.”

Senior Vice President of the British Veterinary Association, Gudrun Ravetz, states, that the decision “undermines the government’s precious promises that the UK will continue to be known for our high standards of animal health and welfare…It is extremely concerning that a marginal majority of MPs have voted down this seminal clause. Enshrining animal sentience in UK law would have acknowledged that we consider animals as being capable of feelings such as pain and contentment and, so, deserving of consideration and respect. It is a founding principle of animal welfare science, and for the way that we should treat all animals.”

After a subsequent outcry, MPs took to social media to protest that the refusal to retain this legislation did not, in fact, mean that those who voted against NC30 disbelieve in sentience. MP Zac Goldsmith termed the reporting ‘weird and dishonest,’ and stated that the vote had been in regard to the correct legal procedure for maintaining standards of animal welfare, not about whether animals are sentient.

Conservative Rachel Maclean, for Redditch, says “This government, and in fact all governments, are deeply committed to continuing to protect animals as sentient beings. That law is already written into our own law.”

The Prime Minister May, added that she believed that animals are indeed sentient beings, and should be treated accordingly. Henry Smith, MP for Crawley, pointed out that EU law also permits many practices which are opposed by animal rights groups.

Caroline Lucas, co-leader of the Green Party, commented “The government have rightly and commendably committed to transferring all existing EU law on animal welfare into UK law under the bill, but because the text of the Lisbon treaty is not transferred by the bill, the wording of article 13 on animal sentience will not explicitly be incorporated into UK law.”

Lucas added: “The UK has no legal instrument other than article 13 of the Lisbon treaty to provide that animals are sentient beings.”

And she states that the Animal Welfare Act does not provide sufficient protection.

On Nov. 23, Michael Gove said in a written statement to the MPs that, “The prime minister has made clear that we will strengthen our animal welfare rules. This government will ensure that any necessary changes required to UK law are made in a rigorous and comprehensive way to ensure animal sentience is recognised after we leave the EU. The withdrawal bill is not the right place to address this; however, we are considering the right legislative vehicle.”

Claiming that EU rules currently prevent the government from imposing such restrictions, Gove has also hinted that, after Brexit, the government could be freer to strengthen current animal welfare legislation, including a ban on live animal exports and a crackdown on puppy smuggling.

In response, Lucas stated that this is an ideal time simply to transfer EU law into UK law, and added, “The government’s refusal to accept this amendment is simply absurd – and their continued insistence that sentience is covered in animal legislation is wrong. Britain been forward thinking animal welfare over the years, which is why ditching this provision would be such a backwards step.”

Based on the ongoing social media commentary, the many Pagans who have remarked on the issue do remain in strong support both of the concept of animal sentience and in maintaining a high level of animal welfare legislation. Just as community members have gotten involved with protests concerning the elimination of fox hunting and badger culling, Pagans are joining others now in closely watching this hotly contested issue.