The UK government has proposed a new animal sentience bill that would make progress for animals on several fronts. The bill would recognize many animals as sentient and would set up an Animal Sentience Committee to produce reports about animal welfare. But the bill is vague in key respects, creating space for the UK to treat animals much worse than its stated aspirations suggest.
A new animal sentience bill became necessary when the UK decided to leave the EU. The Lisbon Treaty requires EU members to “pay full regard” to animal welfare, “since animals are sentient beings.” Leaving the EU meant that the UK would no longer be a party to this treaty, and so would need to recognize animal sentience separately. This raised the question of what kind of animal sentience bill the UK might pass.
In November 2017, the UK government rejected a proposal to carry the Lisbon Treaty clause into post-Brexit policy. Understandably, uproar ensued. But the government explained that the reason for the vote was that it regards EU animal welfare standards as too weak, not as too strong. The government wanted an effective animal sentience bill that would cement its position as a global leader on animal welfare.
This is a fair point. Full regard for sentient beings might sound good in theory, but in practice, the Lisbon Treaty applies only to a limited set of policies that impact animals, and it allows member states to exempt customs and traditions that harm animals. It also leaves the meaning of “full regard” vague, which allows member states to claim to pay “full regard” to animals while harming and killing them unnecessarily.
Ever since this failed 2017 proposal, animal sentience legislation has been a matter of public discussion in the UK. Three and a half years of consultations (and a few false starts) later, the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill has now passed its first reading in the House of Lords. There is still a long road ahead for this bill, but there is also cause for optimism that this bill, unlike the 2017 proposal, will become law.
So what does the new UK bill require? First, it requires the UK government to “establish and maintain an Animal Sentience Committee,” whose members will be appointed by the Secretary of State. While the UK already has committees that assess the animal welfare impacts of particular practices, this committee would be empowered to do this work in a more general and visible way.
Second, when the government proposes or implements policies, this committee can publish reports about whether the government has shown “all due regard to the ways in which the policy might have an adverse effect on the welfare of animals as sentient beings.” These reports can also include recommendations with the aim of “ensuring” that the government shows “all due regard” in this sense in the future.
Third, when the Animal Sentience Committee publishes reports and recommendations about animal welfare, the Secretary of State must present a response before Parliament within three months of the date of publication. The purpose of this requirement seems to be to create accountability, by ensuring that the UK government engages with animal welfare assessments rather than simply ignore them.
Finally, the UK bill specifies that ‘animal’ refers to all vertebrates other than Homo sapiens. It also specifies that the Secretary of State “may by regulations” include invertebrates too. This language creates a floor for which animals can be included without creating a ceiling. Many vulnerable animals, ranging from chickens to fishes, are seemingly already included, and many others might be in the future.
So does the UK bill improve on the Lisbon Treaty? Yes and no. On one hand, the UK bill is more concrete than the Lisbon Treaty in several respects. For instance, the Lisbon Treaty does not require the creation of animal sentience committees, require member states to respond to such committees, or specify that the Treaty covers all vertebrates. Adding these elements does create additional accountability.
On the other hand, the UK bill is still vague or weak in key respects. For instance, who will serve on the Animal Sentience Committee? How frequently will the committee publish reports? Can these reports discuss how to make animals happier in addition to how to make them less miserable? How will the government respond to these reports? Will invertebrates such as crabs and octopuses eventually be included?
The upshot is that what the UK bill might mean for animals is still unclear. It has a lot of symbolic value, since it reinforces the idea that animals are sentient beings and that we have a moral and legal responsibility to consider their interests when making decisions that affect them. While reinforcing this idea might not be enough to bring about change, it can still play a role in doing so.
The bill also has a lot of practical value. For example, even if the Animal Sentience Committee plays a purely advisory role, it can still make a difference. Humans are currently causing massive and unnecessary harm to animals, global health, and the environment all at once. In some cases, simply making that reality salient can be enough to motivate people to support harm reduction policies.
But since the UK bill is vague in key places, it will allow for a stark contrast between what the law requires in theory, on a plausible reading, and what the law permits in practice. Like all states that have passed animal sentience laws so far, the UK will likely declare that animal welfare matters while allowing citizens to exploit and exterminate hundreds of millions of animals each year unnecessarily.
This hypocrisy is likely intentional. An unambiguously strong animal sentience bill would likely (wrongly) be rejected by some voters and lawmakers, and an unambiguously weak animal sentience bill would likely (rightly) be rejected by others. The only remaining option is to pass an ambiguous bill and hope that we can work towards a stronger interpretation that does more to protect animals over time.
This kind of hypocrisy can have benefits as well as risks. On one hand, the UK bill might motivate citizens to care about animal welfare more and push the government to treat animals better. On the other hand, it might also give citizens the false impression that the government is already treating animals much better than it is. We will need to keep both of these possible effects in mind moving forward.
In any case, even if we appreciate why the UK is taking this hypocritical stance (as well as why this stance might be good in some respects), we can and should still criticize it until the UK truly does extend “all due regard” to animals. It will take sustained advocacy to ensure that this bill is both improved and properly enforced. Otherwise even an ideal version of this bill would be nothing more than words on a page.
There is a deeper concern about the UK animal sentience bill as well, which is that the legal category of “sentient being” is, itself, contested. What does it mean to be a sentient being under the law? Do you have rights or not? Is it illegal to harm or kill you unnecessarily or not? If so, how is that different from your being a person under the law? If not, how is that different from your being a thing under the law?
The deeper concern, then, is that the aspiration to treat animals as sentient beings under the law might, itself, be inadequate. We might eventually need to create a much richer set of legal protections for animals so that they can live well in a human-dominated world. So, even if the UK does eventually extend “all due regard” to animal welfare, that might, itself, only be a step on the path towards justice for animals.
The UK animal sentience bill is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. But the UK needs to do much more to achieve its goal of being a global leader on animal welfare. And we all need to do much more to create societies in which animals are treated with all due respect and compassion. We are nowhere near justice for animals, but we can celebrate each step on the path even as we push for more.
Jeff is Clinical Associate Professor of Environmental Studies, Affiliated Professor of Bioethics, Medical Ethics, and Philosophy, and Director of the Animal Studies M.A. Program at New York University. He is co-author of Chimpanzee Rights and Food, Animals, and the Environment.
Antonia Shann is Editor and Communications Officer at Charity Entrepreneurship.