Like a lobster in boiling water, a parliamentary bill on animal sentience is being tortured in the House of Lords. The problem is political rather than ethical. Nobody objects to some animals being declared sentient, but the government seems to be saying to one audience that the bill is a dramatic change that will do more to prevent suffering, while to another audience it insists that the bill is an empty gesture that will change nothing.
The real reason for the bill goes back to 2017. Some alert activist who did not like Brexit spotted that in leaving the European Union we would lose the passing reference in Article 13 of the Lisbon Treaty that animals are sentient. This was quickly weaponised in a letter-writing campaign to MPs. But there were two problems with the argument.
First, British law does recognise animal sentience, and has done since 1822 when an act was passed to prevent cruelty to cattle.
Second, the European Union’s sentience clause was weaker than anything in British law, saying that “since animals are sentient beings” lawmakers should try to take their welfare into account but — I paraphrase — not if it gets in the way of everyday life. (The actual wording is “while respecting the legislative or administrative provisions and customs of the Member States relating in particular to religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage activity”.) This was no accident. Spain would have vetoed anything that prevented bullfighting.
Thus, far from setting Britain free to torture animals, leaving the EU would have no discernible effect. Scientists who do experiments on mice, chefs who cook lobsters, farmers who dehorn cattle, abattoirs that slaughter halal or kosher meat, fishermen who catch and release roach and gamekeepers who shoot grey squirrels are all subject to laws that require them to minimise suffering as far as possible. These rules assume that certain of these animals are sentient but don’t tolerate vindictive cruelty even to non-sentient creatures.
Yet to get the letter-writers off the backs of MPs, the government drafted a sentience bill. It was a solution looking for a problem. The first attempt had to be abandoned as unworkable. The second does just one thing: it sets up a committee, the animal sentience committee. As Lord Forsyth pointed out in the second reading debate, this is a bizarre thing for a bill to do because “the government do not need primary legislation to set up a committee”. The government sets up committees with roughly the same regularity and enthusiasm as a trout eats flies. Indeed, it already has a committee called the animal welfare committee.
Ah, says the government, but whereas the animal welfare committee has a specific remit within a specific department and has the power to write rules, this new committee will range over the whole of policy, from roads to foreign policy, looking at any and all legislation, past and present, to check whether it takes into account the sentience of animals. Even less need for a bill to set it up, then, surely? Indeed, going down this route means that the committee will be in place months later than if the prime minister had just picked up the phone to some Professor Dolittle and asked him to chair a committee in exchange for a probable CBE in a few years’ time.
Suspicious backbenchers in the Lords began to worry that this committee must be going to be more than meets the eye. The government admits that it has not yet written the committee’s terms of reference or decided who will sit on it, making debate over the bill rather futile. The Labour peer Baroness Mallalieu QC, who knows a thing or two about lawyers, opined: “It is likely to benefit lawyers, at the taxpayers’ expense, and to be a bureaucratic nightmare with no limit to its remit, unlike the EU animal sentience provision, [and] no provision for adequate funding for such wide scope”.
No, you have the wrong end of the stick, says the government. We are not giving this new committee its own budget or any powers to alter, delay or prevent the policies it pronounces on. Well then, why create it? As a job creation scheme? Will people with strong views on animal rights be on it? No, of course not, says the government, only people with no axe to grind — and presumably therefore no special expertise.
If you think that government committees are content to remain toothless, you have never studied that sentient creature, the bureaucrat. Its very raison d’etre, as a squirrel gathers nuts and builds a drey in which to rear its young, is to maximise its budget, expand its remit, creep its mission and rear more bureaucrats. C Northcote Parkinson laid it all out in the 1950s, with his famous article that pointed out how the number of admirals in the navy increased in inverse proportion to the number of ships. There is a whole economic theory on the topic of the tendencies of bureaucracies to pursue their own growth, called public choice theory.
Look for example at the climate change committee, set up to advise the government on implementing its Climate Change Act. At first it was reasonable and balanced. But under the chairmanship of Lord Deben, it quickly became — I exaggerate a little — the paramilitary arm of Extinction Rebellion, demanding ever more extreme measures with barely a hint of cost-benefit analysis. It has no power but that of the bully pulpit, but it uses that to terrify government ministers.
If this bill passes in its present form, the animal sentience committee will spend its first few months gathering justifications for a larger budget and will then produce reports that steadily become more demanding and imperious. The government, it will soon be telling the media, “must” delay the building of a third runway, say, because the great crested newts in the area will suffer stress and the latest research has shown that they are sentient.
The right way to take sentience into account is through a wide-ranging and continuous debate throughout the whole of society, including parliament, and not by shunting it off to a committee. The brilliant psychologist Nick Humphrey has shown me his forthcoming book on the topic of sentience. In it he wrestles with whether fish sentience is anything like mouse sentience, and eventually tackles the sentience of future robots. These are fascinating debates but they are not ones that a committee can decide.
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