“To the Tory MPs who say animals can’t feel pain: you should be ashamed”

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Moya Crockett
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Last week, the Government quietly rejected a bill recognising that animals can feel pain and emotions. This is Brexit politics at its worst, says writer Moya Crockett.

It hasn’t, all told, been a great couple of weeks for the world’s animals. The future of elephants in Zimbabwe and Zambia currently hangs in the balance, as President Donald Trump deliberates whether to allow hunting trophies to be imported into the US. And in the UK, Conservative MPs have now overwhelmingly voted against the idea that animals can feel pain and emotion.

Yes, you read that right. The current government apparently believes that animals are incapable of feeling anything – not even physical pain. And as with so many pull-your-hair-out moments in UK politics, the root of the problem is Brexit.

The shock decision came after Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, submitted a clause to the EU Withdrawal Bill that would officially recognise animals as sentient beings under UK law. Animal sentience (in other words, the notion that animals are conscious and can experience emotions and feelings, including pain) has been enshrined in EU legislation since 1999.

From March 2019, however, European laws will no longer apply in the UK. As a result, Lucas wanted to introduce a new clause that would recognise animal sentience, protecting animal welfare after the UK leaves the European Union.

But her suggestion was roundly rejected by no less than 313 MPs, all of them Conservative. 

Green MP Caroline Lucas

The Government’s decision has been swiftly condemned by animal rights groups. The RSPCA slammed it as a “truly backward step” that “flies in the face” of the promise – made in July by environment secretary Michael Gove – that high animal welfare standards would be maintained post-Brexit.

The British Veterinary Association, meanwhile, has described the vote as “extremely concerning”, adding that animal sentience “is a founding principle of animal welfare science”. There are concerns (expressed in parliament by Lib Dem MP Tim Farron) that the absence of the clause in the EU Withdrawal Bill will make it easier for the UK to significantly lower its animal welfare standards, particularly when doing trade deals with foreign countries.

But according to the Government, we’re all making a big fuss over nothing. Several Tory MPs argued during the debate that rejecting the concept of animal sentience will actually be better for animals in the long run, and allow us to introduce our own animal welfare laws.

“We in this country are, of course, well known throughout Europe as a nation of animal lovers,” said Edward Leigh, the Tory MP for Gainsborough in Lincolnshire (who is, incidentally, such an animal lover himself that he has repeatedly voted against the hunting ban and in favour of selling off England’s forests). He advised Lucas to focus her efforts on “ensuring that in our own laws we have the best animal welfare protection in the world”, rather than trying to incorporate EU laws into post-Brexit legislation.

In addition, the Government insisted that animal sentience is actually already covered by a piece of British-born legislation, the Animal Welfare Act 2006. But this defence has been dismissed by critics as deliberately misleading, with the RSCPA noting that the act only covers pets – not wild animals or those kept in laboratories.

The EU law recognising animals as sentient prompted a ban on cosmetic animal testing in Europe

There are many reasons why the Conservatives’ decision is so deeply alarming. The first is that the EU law recognising animals as sentient beings isn’t just symbolic. Since it came into force in 1999, it’s had a real and noticeable impact on animal welfare standards across Europe, prompting changes including the bans on barren battery cages, the import of sealskins, and cosmetic animal testing. Without it, it is far from inconceivable that unscrupulous companies will attempt to lower their animal welfare standards.

This move also shows just how low the Government is prepared to sink in its determination to throw off the shackles of the EU. As Lucas noted in her address to parliament, the existing law could easily be replaced with a brief amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill. Why would Conservative MPs choose not to do so?

There are only two explanations that make sense: because they simply want to reject EU-born laws, or because they want the chance to barter for trade with countries that don’t recognise animal sentience. Neither option is comforting.

Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, had promised a ‘green Brexit’ that protected animal welfare

But the biggest cause for alarm is that the Government’s stance is so patently, provably incorrect. Like Trump’s decision in June to pull the US out of the Paris climate agreement, it represents a pig-headed rejection of science and truth. Of course, you don’t have to be a scientist to understand that animals experience feelings such as pain, anxiety and happiness – but there are literally thousands of studies to support the idea beyond any reasonable doubt.

We know, for example, that dogs can sense fear in humans and reflect this back to them. We know that swans grieve. We know that mice, rats and chickens are capable of displaying empathy, that fish feel pain, and that monkeys get jealous.

For Conservative MPs to legislatively reject these facts, when the concept of animal consciousness has been accepted by scientists for years, is nothing short of an international embarrassment. They should be ashamed, and reconsider their decision.

As it stands, their claim to represent a “nation of animal lovers” isn’t just undeserved. It’s a lie.

Images: Sebastien / Unsplash / Rex Features / iStock