This was an important vote and one which we are deeply disappointed was lost. To appreciate the impact of the vote, it is important to understand some of the nuance behind the headlines.

In a nutshell, MPs weren’t voting on whether animals do or don’t have feelings. They were voting on whether it is necessary to put this concept into the Withdrawal Bill.

The Government argues it would complicate matters and is unnecessary. However, Opposition MPs argue that if it’s not included, there will be a gap left as UK law won’t state clearly that animals are sentient and that this must be a consideration in future.

The vote was on a proposed amendment to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which sought to ensure that explicit recognition of animal sentience and the need to consider this in policymaking is maintained after Brexit.

The need for the vote arose because, while the Withdrawal Bill is designed to make sure that current EU law remains in place, including laws protecting animals, the sentience principle is contained in an EU treaty rather than legislation, and so therefore wasn’t covered automatically. MPs were hoping to fill this gap with their amendment.

Article 13 of Title II of the Lisbon Treaty reads:

“In formulating and implementing the Union's agriculture, fisheries, transport, internal market, research and technological development and space policies, the Union and the Member States shall, since animals are sentient beings, pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals, while respecting the legislative or administrative provisions and customs of the Member States relating in particular to religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage.”

The proposed amendment to the Withdrawal Bill which was voted on read:

“Obligations and rights contained within the EU Protocol on animal sentience set out in Article 13 of Title II of the Lisbon Treaty shall be recognised and available in domestic law on and after exit day, and shall be enforced and followed accordingly.”

The rejection of this addition to the Withdrawal Bill doesn’t mean we will lose existing animal welfare legislation – domestic law will continue to apply and EU law will be incorporated into UK law.

What will be lost is the explicit recognition of animals as sentient beings and the requirement to take this into account in policymaking, which isn’t something addressed by laws such as the Animal Welfare Act (which is also only applicable to domestic animals and wild animals in captivity.) The main risk is that the Government would not be obliged by law to take sentience into account in future law-making, which could be at odds with its statements about wanting to advance the UK’s status as a world leader in animal welfare.

While the amendment could technically be reintroduced at a later stage, the sentience principle is probably unlikely to be accepted as an amendment to the Withdrawal Bill. The Government would see it as risky to start conceding amendments to the Bill in general as this could open up the Bill to any of the 400 or so other amendments proposed. However, they have said that they are exploring how best to reflect this obligation in UK law.

The League is therefore calling on the Government to make animal welfare paramount in any future policy-making and to make clear urgently how it intends to ensure the sentience of all animals is given full recognition in UK law when we leave the EU.

Two Fox Cubs surrounded by grass and plants

UPDATE: Prompted by the scale of concern raised by the vote, Environment Secretary Michael Gove has since used a written statement to defend the Government’s current position, arguing that the Withdrawal Bill “is not the right place” to address the issue, while reiterating that they are “considering the right legislative vehicle” to ensure that animal sentience continues to be recognised after Brexit. The debate isn’t over yet.