Why does UK law not recognise animals as sentient beings?

As the UK leaves the EU without new laws recognising animal sentience, James West, Senior Policy Manager of Compassion in World Farming, emphasises the importance of the UK enshrining this in law.

Cows in field
James West

Compassion in World Farming (Compassion) has long campaigned on the issue of animal sentience, and the need for it to be recognised in law. Indeed, during the 1990s, Compassion spearheaded the campaign for animal sentience when it delivered a petition of over one million citizens to the EU on the topic. This work played a critical role in securing the recognition of animals as sentient beings, now known as Article 13 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). It recognises animals as “sentient beings” and requires EU Governments, in “formulating and implementing policies”, to pay “full regard to the welfare requirements of animals.”

Capable of feeling pain, joy and pleasure

Imagine, for a moment, that the law didn’t recognise your ability to feel joy, fear, pleasure, or pain – nor your ability to learn, or your consciousness of the world around you. Now the UK has left the EU and without new laws in place recognising animal sentience, this is the terrifying reality for every single one of the UK’s farm animals.

Anyone who has seen a pig wallow in mud, a hen dustbathe, or a cow let out into pasture for the first time each spring can see that farm animals are sentient. Yet as a result of leaving the EU, animal sentience is no longer recognised in UK law – in spite of the warm words from the Government, for over three years, that no such gap in protections would occur.

Disappointing progress and broken promises

The situation has arisen because the Government of Mrs May didn’t wish to carry across provisions from EU Treaties as part of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, only Directives and Regulations.

During the passage of that Bill, Caroline Lucas MP tabled an amendment that would have enshrined Article 13 in UK law, post-Brexit. Frustratingly the Government whipped its own MPs to vote ‘no’, and the amendment was defeated.

Following widespread media coverage of that vote, the Government pledged to introduce their own version into law, one it claimed would be better, as they believed the EU law did not go far enough in recognising and protecting animal sentience.

It was a welcome development when a draft Bill was produced in 2018. However, progress was short lived as the then EFRA Select Committee heavily criticised the Bill and it was quietly withdrawn, with a promise that it would take those criticisms on board and return with a new Bill.

In 2019, Kerry McCarthy MP tabled a 10 Minute Rule Bill to encourage the Government to act, and even then, the Government promised animal sentience would be in law by end of the Brexit transition period (with the EU law applying until it was replaced before that time).

Yet, as of 1 January 2021, there is still no sight of the Bill that would recognise animals as sentient beings. Instead, we are told it will be part of the next Parliamentary session. That session is unlikely to begin until early summer, so even if it were one of the first Bills brought forward (and passed), this huge gap in UK law is likely to persist for many months to come. It’s simply not good enough. 

Animal sentience legislation must apply to all sentient animals - whether farmed, wild, research or companion. They are thinking, feeling beings and what happens to them matters. At a minimum, all vertebrates, cephalopods (squid, octopuses, etc.) and decapod crustaceans (crabs, lobsters, etc.) should be legally defined as within the scope of sentience legislation. The legislation should also provide a mechanism for this list to be expanded in future, based on the latest scientific evidence of sentience. Therefore, all Government departments should be covered by the legislation. Any exemptions would also reduce the scope of the legislation, diminishing its positive animal welfare impacts.

British animals must be recognised as sentient beings - immediately

Compassion, working with the Better Deal For Animals coalition, has continued to maintain the pressure on the UK Government, and Members of Parliament, to ensure that this much needed legislation is introduced as soon as possible. If you live in the UK, please email your MP today.

Ask them to help ensure British animals are recognised as sentient beings, immediately. Because sentience is a fact – and facts cannot be recognised in some circumstances but not others.