Veterinarians push British government on animal sentience legislation

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Signatories to the open letter span all areas of veterinary work including small and large animal practice, research, government and academia.
Signatories to the open letter span all areas of veterinary work including small and large animal practice, research, government and academia. Photo by Dorothea Oldani

Officers and representatives from the British Veterinary Association (BVA) are demanding that the Government takes swift action to enshrine the principle of animal sentience in legislation.

A group of veterinary professionals from the BVA and 18 species divisions and affiliate groups representing all areas of the workforce have written an open letter  calling on the Government to deliver on commitments to animal sentience made back in December 2017.

The letter and an accompanying appeared in Wednesday’s Daily Telegraph newspaper. The move marks 40 months since then Environment Secretary Michael Gove stated that the Government was ‘acting energetically’ to strengthen protections for animals after Brexit. However, progress on embedding sentience has since stalled, with the Government stating that they will find the appropriate vehicle to introduce it into law ‘when parliamentary business allows’.

As a member of the EU, animal sentience was recognised in the UK through Article 13 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU. This placed a duty on government to have regard for animal welfare when formulating and implementing policy. Article 13 did not automatically come over to UK law when Britain left the EU, the BVA said.

“This means the UK has lost the legal principle that underpins animal welfare protections. While this may seem purely symbolic there are practical implications. The loss of the duty to consider animal welfare when formulating policy comes at the most critical point in the development of agricultural and trade policies for a generation,” the BVA said.

BVA’s recently published position on animal sentience recognises the robust and growing evidence base that demonstrates the capacity of animals across the species to have feelings including pain and pleasure, implying a level of conscious awareness.  It recommends that the Government should make sure that legislation on sentience is ‘meaningful and proportionate’, and that it imposes a duty on the state to have due regard for the principle in future policy-making.

Signatories to the Telegraph letter span all areas of veterinary work including small and large animal practice, research, government and academia, and the letter has also been signed by the Presidents of the British Veterinary Nursing Association (BVNA) and Association of Veterinary Students (AVS). In 2017, BVA spearheaded an open letter on sentience signed by nearly 1200 vets, vet nurses and students.

Daniella Dos Santos, BVA senior vice-president, said that after such a promising start, with Michael Gove’s promised ‘energetic’ action on sentience in 2017, concerted campaigning by veterinary associations and animal welfare organisations and a huge outpouring of public feeling, it was “disappointing that this fundamental principle of animal welfare has still not got over the line and into law 40 months on from this commitment”.

”BVA’s position on sentience recognises how critical it is that the principle is carried through into UK law now that we have left the EU.  Taking action would mean that the needs of animals across the species were considered in future policy-making, and set a strong reminder of the UK’s position as a global leader on animal welfare,” Dos Santos said.

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