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New animal welfare body mustn’t be “toothless”

17 January 2022

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee has said that the Government’s new animal welfare committee must have the powers it needs to do its job. The EFRA Committee has written to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Rt Hon George Eustace MP, seeking assurances that the Government’s new Animal Sentience Committee (ASC) will be able to ensure that all government policies consider their impact on sentient animals.

The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill is to have its Second Reading in the House of Commons on 18 January – which is MPs’ first opportunity to debate the main principles of a Bill. The Committee has written to Mr Eustace to set out its views on the Bill ahead of that debate.

The Bill will create an Animal Sentience Committee (ASC) which will publish reports about whether animal sentience (feelings or consciousness) is properly considered when government policy is developed, to which Ministers will have to respond.

The new draft of the Bill has been broadly welcomed by the EFRA Committee, after it heavily criticised a vague initial version of it in 2017, which the committee said would have left almost any government policy or announcement open to judicial review.

Despite improvements to the draft Bill, MPs on the EFRA select committee made several further comments. They said in their letter that it is important to have people on the ASC with sufficient expertise in animal welfare and scientific knowledge. They said it was not clear the amount of time allocated for the Committee’s work (15-20 days a year) was enough to attract high-calibre candidates to the role. The MPs asked the Secretary of State to review the time commitment of ASC members after its first year of operations - and increase it if necessary.

The EFRA Committee said it was also important that the ASC had sufficient independence from government. It therefore asked Ministers to confirm that the ASC would be able to publish its reviews without requiring the approval of his department or any other part of government.

The MPs on the committee also stressed that the ASC must have sufficient powers to gather the information it needs from government departments to do its work. Otherwise, the MPs said, there was a danger that the ASC might become “another toothless Whitehall committee whose reports gather dust while critical issues of animal welfare within policy making go largely unaddressed”.

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