Lord Herbert of South Downs Portrait Lord Herbert of South Downs (Con)
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My Lords, I draw attention to my positions in the Countryside Alliance, including chairman, which I have declared in the register of Members’ interests. I regret detaining the House. I appreciate that there is important business next on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. However, as the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill leaves the House, I feel that there are important issues that need to be addressed. I would like to make two points at the outset.

First, none of what I am going to say is an attack on my noble friend the Minister. He is a good friend and a good man who has been given the impossible job of defending a Bill about which many of us have considerable reservations, and has done so with unfailing grace and humour. I am genuinely sorry to differ from him on this measure. Secondly, every one of us in this House wants to promote animal welfare. I certainly do. I feel strongly that animals must be treated properly but, whatever the good intentions of those promoting the Bill, I fear that it is not a wise measure as drafted. In fact, if we take a step back, it is actually an incredible measure. It seriously proposes that the effect of any government policy on the welfare of animals may be considered by an unfettered statutory committee and that Ministers must respond to that committee’s reports.

When the Bill started, that measure applied only to vertebrates; now it applies to cephalopod molluscs and decapod crustaceans. That was one of the few amendments made to the Bill, and that was by the Government. At the height of a pandemic which has killed thousands of people and cost our economy billions, we have decided to devote time to passing a law to ensure that no government policy can hurt the feelings of a prawn.

The Government rejected every other amendment put to them. We pointed out that sentience is not actually defined in the legislation; apparently that does not matter. What matters is that Ministers must have regard to sentience, even if we do not know what it actually is. We asked for safeguards to ensure the expertise of the committee’s members. We were told that such protections were not necessary. We asked for constraints to the committee’s scope. We were told that limits to the committee’s unfettered remit were not necessary either. Crucially, we asked why the balancing provisions in the Lisbon treaty, which specifically exempt religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage, were not included and why the Bill goes so much further than the EU measure it claims to replace. We were told that this balancing provision was not necessary either. In fact, apparently no change was necessary.

The Government have been able to ignore every concern expressed, largely on this side, by relying on the kindness of strangers—uncritical support for the measures that would have guaranteed the defeat of any amendment. I wonder whether the Government will come to regret that.

I am sure that Ministers do not intend that this new committee will get out of hand. I am sure they intend to appoint sensible people to it. I am sure they believe their own rhetoric when they say that Ministers decide so they will resist the committee’s recommendations if necessary. This is of little reassurance when the Government have already capitulated in the face of a social media campaign to introduce the committee in the first place. It is like saying, “Don’t worry, we are going to make sure the burglar won’t take anything from your house, but we are going to let him in to make helpful suggestions about your security”. This committee will set its own priorities. It will decide its own agenda. It will rove across government at will and demand answers to its recommendations. The Government may believe that they are answering public concern by setting up the committee in this way, but I fear they are making a massive rod for their own back.

This measure departs from the usual practice of taking careful and specific steps to ensure animal welfare by injecting a broad and ill-defined principle into our public administration. The danger is that, in doing so, it will effectively if unwittingly hand an institutional footing to the animal rights agenda. We are giving leverage and power to that single-issue ideology, which can be uncompromising and extreme, without thinking through the consequences.

We are trying to beat a mutating virus. We are trying to level up, to build back better. We need Government to take better decisions, and more quickly. We need to get things done faster, yet we are putting in place a barely constrained mechanism which is simply bound to glue up government. I am afraid that I differ from my noble friend on that. At best, even with sensible people in place, the committee will put spanners in the works because frankly that will be its job. It will make it harder for Ministers to deliver, to take difficult balancing decisions, which they sometimes must, or to ignore populist sentiment. At worst, without the necessary safeguards in place, the committee risks becoming a Trojan horse, used especially to attack wildlife management farming or the well-being and way of life of our rural communities. We know that this is a real risk because the animal rights agenda is in plain sight, and because its proponents are already incessantly abusing judicial review to force government to do its will.

It is usually this House which provides a robust check on measures propelled by populist wins, yet we have passed the Bill with no amendment, except to extend its scope to beasts such as cuttlefish. Some noble Lords may remember that, 30 years ago, it was only the sober intervention of this House which prevented the then Dangerous Dogs Bill from inadvertently making it a strict liability imprisonable offence for a dog to cause injury by accidentally knocking someone off their bicycle. That Bill had foolishly been driven through all its Commons stages in a single day, but today we are showing ourselves to be more inclined to bend without sufficient thought to populism, and now it will fall to Members of the House of Commons to address the deficiencies in this proposal.

We all want to advance animal welfare, but the sentience provisions in the Lisbon treaty had little or nothing to do with the succession of admirable legislation which for over a century has been passed by this Parliament. In fact, with Brexit, we have the freedom to pass laws to protect animals which would not have been possible before—to address puppy smuggling, for instance. Even before this sentience Bill has been passed, other government Bills to protect animals have been introduced or announced, which only goes to prove that this Bill, creating this committee in this way, is not necessarily to protect animals.

I have offered these remarks in the hope that even as the Bill leaves this House, there is still a chance that its serious deficiencies will be addressed and that we will return to focusing on specific workable measures to improve the welfare of animals in ways which we all want and can all support. I beg to move.

Lord Robathan Portrait Lord Robathan (Con)
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My Lords, I pay tribute to my noble friend the Minister who, with good humour throughout, has defended what is frankly almost indefensible. He has done extremely well, and I hope that he is congratulated by the higher ranks of the Government. I associate myself entirely with the excellent points made by my noble friend Lord Herbert. I will not repeat them, but I will repeat that this is a shockingly bad piece of legislation which should be an embarrassment to the Government.

Baroness Mallalieu Portrait Baroness Mallalieu (Lab)
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My Lords, I remind the House of my interests as a member of the RSPCA and president of the Countryside Alliance and the Horse Trust. I too thank the Minister for his patience and courtesy during the passage of this Bill. Given the opposition from parts of the House, this cannot have been an unalloyed pleasure for him.

It gives me no pleasure to support the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Herbert, but I must. I cannot understand how a Government who were elected in no small part promising to reduce bureaucracy, especially that which came from Europe, can have taken the wholly uncontroversial subject of putting animal sentience on the statute book, something which nobody would disagree with, and now seem bent on turning it into a textbook bureaucratic nightmare.

When the former Master of the Rolls, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, told us during the passage of the Bill that it creates a magnet for judicial review; when the foremost vet in this House, the noble Lord, Lord Trees, who supports the Bill, tells us that its scope needs definition and its focus sharpened on to future policy decisions; when the former Leader of the House, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, the former leader of the party opposite, the noble Lord, Lord Howard, and many others, tell the Government that they need to think again, yet they resist and reject all amendments, save for a small number of government ones, it makes me wonder whether this House has actual value as a scrutinising House when they have the comfort of a large majority in another place and know that they are able to push defective Bills through almost unamended there.