The government's flagship Animal Sentience Bill is (slowly) making its way through parliament, with Monday afternoon seeing the Defra select committee take evidence from a range of experts. Steerpike has covered the proposed legislation extensively in recent months, detailing the concerns of peers about its plans to create a powerful Animal Sentience Committee which would judge the effect of government policy on the welfare of animals.
A similar bill was pulled by the then Environment Secretary Michael Gove three years ago after MPs noted it would open every government policy to judicial review. Monday's session will have done little to assuage such fears after Dr Penny Hawkins of the RSPCA implied that the proposed new law would have prevented the recent Australia free trade deal. Indeed if the Bill is passed, the Committee may still be able to alter this agreement, given the current lack of any prohibition on retrospective reviews of existing laws and arrangements. Steerpike wonders how exactly this fits in with the rest of the government's Global Britain agenda.
Those MPs on the fence will also not have been encouraged by suggestions about the committee's potential composition, given the likelihood it will be animal rights activists applying to fill such roles and thus being granted a veto across swathes of government policy. Dr Hawkins spoke positively about the possible involvement of controversial animal rights organisation Peta, telling MPs:
“I've also heard some concerns about potential membership of the committee. I’ve heard concerns about animal rights agendas and I would really like to make the point that when I sat on the animals in science committee, there was also a member of staff at Peta who sat on the animal science committee… We brought a great deal to that committee, in fact we were both asked to serve more than one term and animal experiments are still conducted in the UK… so I think it’s really important to make sure that it’s not just a closed shop, that it includes a whole spread of experience, expertise, perspectives as I’ve said and I think that that would be the best way to ensure clarity and consistency across all government departments.
Questions will also be asked about the methods this committee will use to determine the outcomes of policy reviews. For another witness – Dr Jonathan Birch of the London School of Economics – unorthodox measures are what is needed. He told the committee:
“My own views on this is that I like to see democratic input to decisions of this type and I’m a fan of things like citizens assemblies for example, along the lines of things like the climate assembly. Seems to me there’s plenty of room for that sort of innovation in the area of animal welfare and animal sentience which I think is not currently part of the plan but perhaps should be.
Peta on board and Extinction Rebellion-style citizen assemblies? Mr S wonders how such proposals will go down with the Tory faithful when the legislation goes from committee to the Commons.