Michael Gove accused of backtracking on pledges to protect animal welfare because of Brexit

Animals may no longer be legally recognised as ‘capable of feelings’ – and some live exports could continue

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Saturday 28 October 2017 23:01 BST
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Michael Gove has promised a ‘green Brexit’, but pledges on animal welfare are now in doubt
Michael Gove has promised a ‘green Brexit’, but pledges on animal welfare are now in doubt

Michael Gove is accused today of backtracking on high-profile pledges to protect animals from suffering, in climbdowns linked to Brexit.

The Environment Secretary has dumped a cast-iron guarantee that animals will still be regarded as “sentient” – responsive beings, capable of feelings – say animal rights groups.

Similarly, a heavy hint that exports of live animals will be banned after Britain leaves the EU has also been watered down in recent weeks, they are protesting.

Both controversies have been sparked by Brexit, with suspicions that the Government does not want to tie its hands following the Leave campaign pledge to “take back control”.

One suggestion is that Whitehall fears a ban on live exports might hinder Britain’s ability, outside the EU, to strike future trade deals under World Trade Organisation rules.

Animal Aid warned that Mr Gove “appears to have reneged” on a promise that the EU law giving recognition of creatures as sentient beings will be converted onto the UK statute book

But Mr Gove’s department denied the accusations, insisting he believed animals are sentient beings and that he was considering all options in relation to live exports of animals.

In July, Mr Gove replied “absolutely” when quizzed in the Commons – but his department now says it is “exploring” whether the protection will survive Brexit.

It was introduced, after a long campaign, through Article 13 of the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, requiring ministers to take animal welfare into account when drawing up new policies.

Without it, for example, a future government trying to repeal the foxhunting ban could escape a legal challenge of being in breach of its obligation to “pay full regard” to suffering.

Tod Bradbury, Animal Aid’s campaign manager, told The Independent: “The lives of animals – be they used for ‘food’, experimentation or entertainment – are filled with enough pain, suffering and stress as it is without the removal of their status as ‘sentient’.

“Animal Aid fears that this will result in a backwards step in how we as a nation treat and view animals and urge Michael Gove and the government to maintain the status.”

On live exports, the Environment Secretary said he was “very attracted” by the idea of an outright ban, in an interview after his shock return to the Cabinet, in June.

However, in his party conference speech this month, he spoke instead of “restricting the live export of animals”, even as he promised a “green Brexit”.

The group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said Mr Gove must “stay true to his promise to prioritise ending live exports”.

It praised the Environment Secretary for some of his actions, “such as increasing maximum sentences for cruelty to animals convictions and banning the sale of all ivory”.

But it said: “There’s absolutely no question that frightened animals that are subjected to live export endure extraordinary suffering when they’re crammed into barren containers without fresh air, food, adequate water or veterinary care and forced to marinate alive in their own waste.

“Live export is dangerous and cruel, and the British government must stop it.”

The criticism comes despite some green campaigners – to their astonishment – praising Mr Gove for his surprise activism on other environmental issues.

He has announced plans to ban sales of ivory and plastic microbeads, to outlaw new petrol and diesel cars by 2040 and proposed a deposit scheme for drinks bottles and cans.

Just last week, he delighted greens by condemning farmers who “drench” their fields in chemicals and damage soil fertility.

However, animal welfare groups had expected Article 13, granting sentient status, would be pasted into UK law as part of the EU Withdrawal Bill and were horrified when it was missing.

Asked, in the Commons in July, if it would nevertheless be included, Mr Gove told MPs: “Absolutely.”

He added: “It is an absolutely vital commitment that we have to ensure that all creation is maintained, enhanced and protected.”

However, in August, his deputy, Lord Gardiner, wrote to campaigners to say that “existing purely domestic law” already protected animals where “they are capable of experiencing pain and suffering”.

On Article 13, he wrote: “This obligation will not be preserved by the EU Withdrawal Bill.”

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has now taken a third position, in a more recent letter sent by Lord Gardiner.

“We are exploring how the ‘animal sentience’ principle behind Article 13 can continue to be reflected in the UK after we have left the EU,” the junior minister wrote.”

Nick Palmer, head of policy at Compassion in World Farming, said: “We are concerned but hopeful that the Government will come round in the end.

“A lot of people said that Brexit will mean taking back control – not that Britain will be the only country in Europe not to recognise animal sentience, just because we have left the EU.”

Meanwhile, Mr Gove is under pressure to ban live exports from fellow Brexiteers, who are backing a backbench Bill put forward by Theresa Villiers, a former Cabinet minister.

A Defra spokesman said: “We have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world and are going further, by raising maximum sentences for animal cruelty to five years and introducing mandatory CCTV in abattoirs.

“As the Secretary of State has made clear, we believe animals are sentient beings. As part of the Withdrawal Bill process, we are considering exactly how we can take forward this principle and will set out next steps in due course.”

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