It hasn’t been a great 24 hours for Downing Street. Under fire for its lockdown-busting Christmas party, facing fury over the Afghanistan debacle, surely solace could be found from the fray in the rarefied atmosphere of the House of Lords? Sadly not, for yesterday their noble lordships turned their aristocratic fire on the government’s Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill. The flagship legislation, which Mr S has covered extensively, is designed to protect helpless creatures and recognise they can feel pain by creating a new super-committee to judge the effects of government policies. Lobsters and octopi are to now be included; ministers forced to do morning media rounds are sadly not.
And yesterday, as the bill completed its Report Stage in the Lords, ministers exhibited the same kamikaze sang-froid that has characterised their approach to this issue. Despite criticism from across the House – with one peer dubbing the proposed new law as a ‘shocking piece of legislation’ – it now looks to be going to the Commons virtually unamended. The concerns of both Lord Etherton, a former Master of the Rolls, and Lord Trees, the most senior vet in the chamber, were ignored, with amendments on retrospectivity, committee composition and judicial review all rejected. Mr S did enjoy the sight of Lord Benyon breezily dismissing fears that eco-activists and lawyers will exploit the new system, given that it was just two days ago that the Times reported Boris Johnson plans to overhaul the entire judicial review process to, er, give ministers more power.
‘Turkey-shoot’ was the phrase which came to Steerpike’s mind to describe yesterday’s debate – if such activities were not now at risk of being banned. Staunch Tory Lord Robathan described the bill as ‘the most terrible piece of legislation’ of which ‘the Government should be embarrassed’ while on the other side Ann Mallalieu, a Labour QC, noted drily:
“I still marvel at how a Government who were elected in part on a promise to reduce bureaucracy, especially that emanating from Europe, have taken the wholly uncontroversial issue of animal sentience, which no one would have argued with, and are trying to turn it into a textbook bureaucratic nightmare.
Let’s hope Lord Frost didn’t hear that one. Little detail was given on the committee's accountability to Parliament with the bill's new 'terms of reference' – extracted by peers – boasting less meat on the bone than a vegan chicken drumstick. As the minister Lord Benyon noted, its terms provide 'flexibility to update the terms of reference when needed without the need to take up parliamentary time unnecessarily' meaning potentially sweeping changes without any scrutiny by MPs. Even when asked by Lord Robathan for reassurance that 'Chris Packham and Mark Avery of Wild Justice would not be eligible to be on the committee', the government said it was 'not able to give that reassurance.' Encouraging stuff.
And it was left to the Labour frontbencher Baroness Hayman – whose party has unquestioningly acquiesced in supporting the bill – to (inadvertently) highlight how a future administration could exploit such a weapon in any war on the countryside. Speaking in support of the committee being given retrospective powers to amend existing laws, Hayman referred to the 2004 Hunting Act and the 1831 Game Act, telling the House that Labour believes the committee 'should be free to consider how the implementation of those laws affect the welfare of hares as sentient beings.'
Not for nothing did Lord Caithness, a critic of the bill, note drily: 'Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition were mostly absent, although the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, made a superb job of playing vice-Minister today. I hope that she gets her normal verve back and becomes a proper opposition Minister for the next bill.'
If Chris Packham and the Labour lords are cheering something on, Mr S would imagine it's not quite the conservative measure Tory ministers would like it to be.