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The UK has recognised Animal Sentience in Law, Now the Hard Work Begins…

11 April 2022

Last week, the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill completed its parliamentary stages and now awaits Royal Assent to become law. The passing of the bill means that animal sentience will be enshrined in UK law, having been the only piece of legislation that was not transferred from the EU following Brexit.

Under the new Bill, an Animal Sentience Committee (ASC) will be formed, with members appointed by the Secretary of State. The ASC will act as a scrutiny committee, questioning whether the government has given due consideration to the negative impacts of any new policy on the welfare of animals as sentient beings.

Importantly, the Bill also recognises that, alongside vertebrates, decapod crustaceans (crabs, lobsters and prawns etc.) and cephalopod molluscs (octopus and squid etc.) are also sentient. The recognition of animal sentience and its extension to some invertebrates represents a real victory for animal welfare science. Legislators have examined the rapidly accumulating evidence-base which suggests that many animals have positive and negative emotional states and decided, that on balance, the evidence is strong enough to enshrine this concept into law. We were pleased that Defra commissioned a report to evaluate the evidence for sentience in crustaceans and cephalopods, and acted decisively to extend the Sentience Bill to include them when the reported concluded that the evidence suggested they were likely to be sentient.

Whilst we’re delighted that the Sentience Bill will pass into law in the UK, this new legislation is very far from a panacea for the many welfare challenges faced by animals. The Bill does not mean that the welfare of sentient animals is automatically protected. It simply means that ministers must give ‘all due regard’ to possible negative impacts of new legislation on animal welfare, leaving scope for ministers to conclude that other factors outweigh animal welfare considerations. Secondly, the ASC are only required to focus on potential negative impacts on animal welfare, which may exclude opportunities to make positive animal welfare improvements (although during scrutiny of the Bill ministers stated that the Bill does allow for consideration of positive welfare). Finally, as members of the ASC are to be appointed solely by the Secretary of State, the committee could lack independence or the requisite expertise. There is no requirement for the inclusion of expert animal welfare scientists within the committee. We believe that such a committee should always include independent animal welfare and ethics experts as members, alongside lay members and other stakeholders. 

As for the species newly-acknowledged as sentient, UFAW and its sister charity, the Humane Slaughter Association (HSA), are pleased that the Bill has been extended to include cephalopod molluscs and decapod crustaceans, having responded to a consultation earlier in the legislative process by recommending exactly that. However, as part of our consultation response, we also advised that acknowledgement of sentience alone is inadequate to protect any species. Detailed, evidence-based legislation or guidance is needed to ensure humane treatment of the animals covered by the Bill, especially those newly included species about whose biology we know comparatively little.

At present crustaceans and cephalopods still remain outside the protections of the Animal Welfare Act, the Act which makes it an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to protected animals. We hope they will be offered protection by the Act. But even more fundamentally, we need to know how to protect the welfare of all sentient animals, and in many cases, we simply do not yet have that knowledge. This is particularly true in the case of decapods and cephalopods as there is a lack of understanding and certainty about the welfare impact and humaneness of basic husbandry and slaughter techniques for these species. Indeed, the HSA provided over £1.2 million in research funding to identify and/or validate potential humane stunning methods and parameters for commercial large-scale slaughter of these species.

Whilst many are celebrating a likely end to the slaughter of crabs and lobsters by boiling them alive, something we would also welcome, we are working to find out how they can be slaughtered humanely, given that, whatever our misgivings, it seems inevitable that consumption of these species will continue or even grow despite their inclusion in the Sentience Bill.

It is essential that the majority of members appointed to the ASC are scientists with relevant expertise.  If so, then the Sentience Bill represents a real opportunity for science and scientists to play a fundamental role in the improvement of animal welfare in the UK and at UFAW and HSA we will be working hard to ensure that opportunity is not missed. Both UFAW and HSA will continue to fund essential scientific research which underpins developments in animal welfare and make available our expertise to help ensure that scientific evidence is at the forefront in considerations of animal welfare. We also strongly urge the Government to make the most of the opportunities the Sentience Bill offers by supporting animal welfare science and animal welfare scientists.

Dr Huw Golledge, Chief Executive & Scientific Director, UFAW & HSA