Pets before kids and farmers? Well, at least it’s a positive move from West Dorset’s Chris Loder

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

There is disappointment at government defying the will of the people, by refusing to properly enshrine our food, animal welfare and environmental standards in primary legislation which can’t simply be overridden at the stroke of a ministerial pen. West Dorset MP Chris Loder has provided a drop of welcome relief. The debate on the second reading of his private member’s bill (PMB) on animal welfare saw him sharing the story of how he rescued his dog, Poppy, from the roadside one stormy night. Other members of parliament followed suit in recounting their pet stories.

Loder’s PMB, which increases the maximum sentence for animal cruelty from six months to five years, passed its second reading. The Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill now enters the ‘committee stage’, where each clause of the Bill, and any amendments, will be debated, before ‘report stage’ and third reading. If passed, it will move to the Lords for further scrutiny.

PMBs are introduced by back-benchers and are not part of the government’s legislative agenda, although government may lend support to them. Thirteen Friday sittings of approximately five hours each are given over to debate of PMBs in each parliamentary session, but few ever become law. Of the roughly 150 to 200 PMBs introduced each session, five per cent might become law — although that’s at the optimistic end of the range. Those that stand the greatest chance of success are the PMBs selected by ballot.

The PMB ballot is usually held on the second Thursday of each new parliamentary session. MPs don’t have to have a bill or even a chosen topic at that point; they simply enter their names into the ballot. Twenty names are selected and read out in reverse order. The top seven MPs in the ballot are eligible for a small grant of £200 to help with the drafting, although in practice few draw it down. Those coming highest in the ballot have the greatest chance of seeing their PMB become law.

Loder had the great good luck to come fifth in the ballot. He immediately set up a survey to find out what mattered most to his constituents. Fortunately for him, his constituents are as passionate about animal welfare as he is, and so the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill was born. First reading was on February 5th this year, and second reading on October 23rd, which just goes to show that even with the best will in the world, progression of these bills is slow and the high attrition rate unsurprising.

Indeed, that was one of the major themes of the speeches and – after the cases of cruelty that were shared – it was the second most shocking revelation of the debate. More experienced members detailed previous attempts to get animal welfare bills through parliament, and how these had failed, much to everybody’s frustration. The last one was former MP for Redcar Anna Turley’s Animal Cruelty (Sentencing) Bill of 2017, which fell victim to Boris Johnson’s prorogation shenanigans in 2019. Unlike a Recess, prorogation draws a line under the business of a parliamentary session and any bill still in progress fails.

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

There was a huge hoo-hah about animal sentience in 2017. It was also the year in which Brighton Pavilion MP Caroline Lucas proposed an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill, to carry over the principle of animal sentience. It is enshrined in EU law in Article 13 of the Lisbon Treaty, so was part of English and Welsh law. Dominic Raab, then Minister of State for Justice, and George Eustice, then a minister at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), told the House of Commons that animal sentience was already recognised in domestic law, primarily in the Animal Welfare Act of 2006. Government defeated Lucas’s amendment by a margin of 18 votes.

The great irony was that the EU’s adoption of the principle of animal sentience was one of the UK’s great victories during its 1999 six-month turn at the presidency of the EU. That same principle had been incorporated into the Lisbon Treaty, and here was a British Government rejecting it. The public reaction was swift and brutal. Government brought out the big guns, saying anyone who claimed Tories had voted against the principle of animal sentience by voting Ms Lucas’s amendment down was guilty of fake news. Andrew Neil joined in. Soon, newspaper editors and celebrities were eating humble pie and apologising… Until somebody checked and discovered that animal sentience is not, in fact, covered in the Animal Welfare Act 2006, or indeed in any other Act. Oh dear. The government was forced to admit it had misled the house on this point, and promised to draft an animal sentience protocol — soon.

Fast-forward to the debate on Loder’s PMB, and Loder, seconded by Honiton MP and EFRA Select Committee chair Neil Parish, bemoaned the fact that the scope of his bill was very limited and did not cover animal sentience. Why does it matter if our law recognises the principle of animal sentience or not? Because it would be an all-pervading principle that would inform any other piece of legislation touching upon animal welfare, that’s why.

Loder dedicated a significant portion of his speech to topics not within the scope of the bill — not because he didn’t want to include them, but rather because he had been advised that a bill that was narrower in scope had a greater chance of getting through. He spoke passionately about ending the transportation of live animals, whether for fattening or slaughter, and ending the barbaric practice of non-stunned slaughter. Loder shared some horrific statistics. According to the Food Standards Agency, 91 million chickens are slaughtered in this country every year without first being stunned, as well as 25 per cent of the sheep that are killed.

Both sides of the House were united in their support of the bill, although neither could resist taking the occasional pot-shot at the other — all in a very cordial manner. Christchurch MP and PMB veteran Sir Christopher Chope did, however, caution that MPs should not get carried away and “raise expectations that this [bill] will somehow be a panacea for improving animal welfare.”

Very few people are convicted of animal welfare offences, and even fewer go to jail. Of the roughly 1000 convictions secured each year, only 10 per cent result in custodial sentences. The notes to the bill state that it is not expected that the number of people going to jail would increase, but those who do will face longer sentences, and that will hopefully serve as a deterrent against animal cruelty. In this respect the UK is behind European countries, several of whom already have five-year sentences for this aberrant behaviour: MPs noted the link between animal cruelty and human cruelty, which is why an effective deterrent is so essential. Bristol East MP Kerry McCarthy also put forward the idea of introducing animals into schools and teaching children how to look after them, in case they have no animals at home, or no positive role models to teach them how to treat them.

Mr Loder is to be congratulated on his PMB passing its second reading, but it begs a question. Given that he is so passionate about animal welfare, why on earth didn’t he join his fellow Tory MPs (Peter Aldous, Tracey Crouch, George Freeman, Sir Roger Gale, Simon Hoare, Dr Neil Hudson, Caroline Nokes, Jason McCartney, Stephen McPartland, Neil Parish, Douglas Ross, Henry Smith, Julian Sturdy and Theresa Villiers) in voting to attach Lords Amendment 16 to the Agriculture Bill? This would have written our food, farming and environmental standards on the face of primary legislation, enshrining them in law in a manner that is far more stable than the precarious legal footing they’re on now.

A clue can be found in Loder’s speech on his PMB, when he expressed his resentment at accusations that he did not care about animal welfare because he had not backed the Lords Amendments. As far as he is concerned, existing law is effective at keeping out low-welfare food like chlorinated chicken, beef pumped full of growth hormones and ractopamine-packed pork. “I do not understand,” he said, “why the Opposition and others keep saying that it [low-welfare food] is [allowed], because it is a matter of fact that it is not.” Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner started to explain that concerns stem from the EU Withdrawal Act 2019, which contains an unprecedented amount of so-called ‘Henry VIII’ clauses. These clauses allow ministers to amend the Act through secondary legislation once Transition ends. Statutory instruments, as the documents detailing secondary legislation are known, have little scrutiny. Many are not even debated in parliament, and it’s over forty years since the last one was overturned. Unfortunately, Zeichner was interrupted by the Deputy Speaker and told that the topic was not germane to the bill under discussion.

It is to be hoped, therefore, that between now and the next debate on the Agriculture Bill in the Commons, Mr Loder will seek out one or more of the illustrious MPs on his own side who recognised the peril and voted to accept the Lords Amendment 16. Perhaps he could have a chat with Neil Parish, farmer to farmer, and learn why it is so important to enshrine our standards in law, and get them in black and white on the face of the Agriculture Bill, once it returns for the next vote.