On 12 May 2021 the UK government published an Action Plan for Animal Welfare - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) proposing measures to further protect the treatment of animals in the UK and abroad.
The plan is proposed to build on existing standards by recognising animals as sentient in law and committing to a range of new welfare measures, including those that protect livestock. It also commits to examine the use of cages for poultry and farrowing crates for pigs; improve animal welfare at slaughter; and incentivise farmers to improve animal health and welfare through future farming policy.
As part of this Action Plan a new animal sentience bill was introduced and had its first reading on 13 May Animals to be formally recognised as sentient beings in domestic law - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk). (Previously, animal sentience had been specifically excluded from the UK Withdrawal Act 2018 as part of Brexit.)
The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill will:
- formally recognise animals as sentient beings in domestic law.
By formally recognising vertebrate animals as sentient beings, legislation will have to take into account that animals can “experience feelings such as pain or joy”.
This appears to include wildlife but currently excludes invertebrates.
- establish an Animal Sentience Committee made up of experts to ensure cross departmental government policy considers animal sentience
- ensure Government Ministers update parliament on recommendations made by the Animal Sentience Committee
This Action Plan for Animal Welfare sets out reforms across the following key strands:
1. International trade and Advocacy
The new expert committee on animal sentience will report on government decisions, holding ministers accountable for animal welfare in policy making. New higher maximum penalties for animal cruelty and a new system of penalty fines for people who harm animals are to be introduced.
It is stated that high animal welfare standards are not compromised in trade negotiations.
Concerns remain that UK welfare standards risk being undercut by importers under future trade agreements. The government said it would “use the most suitable tools available” to ensure its manifesto commitment not to compromise on environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards is upheld.
As part of this the government has said it was committed to building a clear evidence base to inform decisions on banning the import or sale of foie gras and other products derived from low-welfare systems.
The live export of animals for slaughter and fattening will be ended.
It stated there will be a consultation on how labelling can be reformed to make it easier for consumers to purchase food that aligns with their welfare values. For example, by clarifying confusing and misleading terms. The UK government are also exploring complementary market interventions that could sit alongside labelling reforms to stimulate market demand for higher welfare products. For example, they are looking at animal welfare in an update to the Government Buying Standards for Food and Catering Services.
3. Farm Welfare
Defra state they will support livestock farmers financially via their Animal Health & Welfare Pathway (Farming for the future: Policy and progress update (publishing.service.gov.uk))
Key issues concern ‘livestock worrying’ as well as examining the use of cages for laying hens and farrowing crates for pigs. This is to be an 'examination' of the use of such cages rather than an outright ban as animal rights campaigners had been demanding. Illegal hare coursing will be the subject of a new crackdown, and the use of glue traps will be restricted.
As a first step the government states it will financially support Annual Health and Welfare Reviews, which will lead to improved farm animal health and welfare, including better biosecurity and diagnostic testing. It is stated they will also support livestock farmers financially to pay for health and welfare enhancements that are valued by the public and not currently delivered sufficiently by the market or through existing regulatory standards.
This is to be part of a wider package of farm welfare reforms:
- Following the recent review of the welfare at slaughter legislation, the government will be considering what further welfare at slaughter improvements should be made.
- The government has consulted on a number of other welfare in transport reforms, such as setting maximum journey times, space allowances for animals and temperature controls. This policy area will now be considered n further detail to determine what will be taken forward in future legislation to improve transport conditions for animals.
- Livestock worrying can cause extensive damage legislation is therefore proposed to ensure that new powers are available to the police so they can respond to the most serious incidents.
Other aspects of the Action Plan concern domestic pets and wild animals.
In the remainder of this Parliament the plan put forward is to implement proposals through a programme of primary legislation, including the Animal Welfare (Sentience), Kept Animals, and Animals Abroad Bills, secondary legislation, and other non-legislative measures.