Michael Gove's 'cavalier' animal welfare law 'not properly thought through', say MPs

'The UK urgently needs a new law focused on animal sentience but this law must be properly thought through and worked out. This legislation is not that' 

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
@ashcowburn
Thursday 01 February 2018 15:56
Environment Secretary Michael Gove
Environment Secretary Michael Gove

Michael Gove’s proposals to improve animal welfare provisions are in a “far from finished state” and appear to have been drafted in a “cavalier fashion”, according to a scathing assessment from a Commons committee.

Published in December, the legislation proposes to increase the maximum sentence for serious animal cruelty to five years in jail and for the Government to enshrine animal sentience into UK law.

But MPs on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in Westminster said animals deserved “better than to be treated in a cavalier fashion yet the impression given to us is one of haste”.

While welcoming the principles of the legislation as “important and worthwhile”, the MPs added: “It appears this draft Bill has been presented to the public – and Parliament – in a far from finished state.

“Many of the key concepts in the Bill remain undefined, so limiting the value of our scrutiny, while the lack of a formal regulatory impact assessment is a further troubling matter.

“The absence of such a document further emphasises the impression that this legislation has not been properly thought through before publication.”

The Committee warned that it appeared unusual for the draft animal welfare legislation to have “so many” of its key concepts out for consultation at such as a late stage in the process, including the definition of “sentience” and the definition of “animal”.

The legislation says the Government “must have regard to the welfare needs of animals as sentient beings in formulating and implementing government policy” and also increases the maximum prison sentence for animal abusers from six months to five years in England and Wales.

MPs added they were worried the “vagueness and ambiguity” of reforms around animal sentience would “impede and delay” tougher sentencing and called for the proposals to be separated into two bills.

Increasing sentences means more cases will go before the Crown Court, which is a slower process, the committee said. It warned that will mean higher numbers of animals held in kennels for long periods of time, impacting their welfare and increasing the cost to the public purse.

The MP said the ambiguity of the clause on animal sentience had led to concerns being expressed to them that “almost any Government policy or announcement will be open to judicial review to determine whether sufficient, but ill-determined ‘regard’ had been given to the welfare of animals”.

“In practice therefore, swathes of Government policy-making will be thrown on to the courts to adjudicate, with all the consequent problems that would bring.”

Neil Parish, a Conservative MP and committee chairman, added: “It is important that the Government considers the full implications of a bill before publishing it. It has failed to do so in this case. The bill has been rushed and the legislation has suffered as a result.

“I am strongly in favour of the increased sentencing provisions in the Bill, but if the UK wants to set a 'gold standard' in animal welfare then the punitive measures for crimes against animals must include a greater range of offences.

“The UK urgently needs a new law focused on animal sentience but this law must be properly thought through and worked out. This legislation is not that.”

Responding to the report, a Defra spokesman said: “We are very grateful to the EFRA committee for their scrutiny of the draft animal welfare bill and are pleased they support the principles behind it.

“We will carefully consider their recommendations as we take legislation forward and will formally respond in due course.

“We will ensure the UK is a world leader in animal welfare, including by increasing sentences for animal cruelty and recognising animal sentience in law.”