Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill – what more needs to be done?

Kerry Postlewhite, Director of Public Affairs at Cruelty Free International offers an insight on what more can and should be done by the UK government, as well as how the public, a nation of animal lovers, can help.

Last month, the Environment Secretary, George Eustice launched the Government’s first-of-a-kind Action Plan for Animal Welfare, which will recognise animals as sentient through an Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill.

Promising to finally recognise that animals experience feelings such as suffering or pleasure, pain, fear, boredom and frustration, contentment, and joy in law; and committing to a range of new game changing welfare measures to protect pets, farmed animals and wild animals, is a welcome development.

Brexit makes the Sentience Bill particularly poignant because in leaving the EU, the Lisbon Treaty that requires all members to ‘pay full regard’ to animal welfare, no longer applied to the UK. Therefore, it was crucial that the Government implemented a Bill which recognised animal sentience separately.

However, despite the progress that we hope will be made for animals as a result of the new Action Plan for Animal Welfare, we fear that the millions of animals who continue to suffer in UK laboratories are being overlooked once again. Not only does existing legislation, the Animal (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, actually permit what it terms “severe and moderate suffering” of animals in experiments, but these animals are often excluded from general animal welfare provisions.

Although the last decade has seen the Government introduce a range of measures to ensure animals receive the care, respect and protection they deserve – including banning the use of battery cages for laying hens, introducing compulsory CCTV in slaughter houses and raising the maximum sentence for animal cruelty from six months to five years – it’s still not enough.

As Ashifa Kassam and Natalie Grover’s report of a laboratory investigation first revealed by Cruelty Free International (Animal testing suspended at Spanish lab after ‘gratuitous cruelty’ footage 8th April) shows, animals used in experiments suffer – not only in individual cases of cruelty and abuse – but systemically.

The Prime Minister has repeatedly pledged to uphold and strengthen UK animal welfare standards after Brexit, and yet, when asked in Parliament, the Government failed to confirm that, following the UK’s exit from the EU, it remains a policy priority to achieve the goal of full replacement of animal experiments.

Kerry Postlewhite Director of Public Affairs at CFI

If the Government is serious about becoming a world-leading nation in animal welfare, it must urgently address the fact that the highest number of animal experiments in Europe are conducted in the UK.

There are 3.4 million experiments on animals in the UK every year despite only 13% being required by regulators (Home Office, 2019). The UK is also the second biggest tester on dogs in Europe, including weed killer tests performed on beagles.

The use of animals in testing is not only cruel, but also ineffective. Animals do not get many of the diseases that people do, such as Parkinson’s, major types of heart disease, many cancers, Alzheimer’s, HIV or schizophrenia. In fact, 90% of drugs that successfully pass animal tests go on to fail in human trials.  What’s more, fewer than 5% lead to approved treatments within 20 years.

When considering the Animal Sentience Bill’s impact for animals, much is still unclear. There are important questions around who will sit on the Animal Sentience Committee how independent it will be and just how sharp its teeth are.

Although the legislation rightly includes a clause that there “may by regulations” to include invertebrates, it is however, an indeterminant statement and could mean many animals are wrongly excluded when it comes to being deemed sentient.

Nonetheless, one thing that we can celebrate, is how the Bill is increasing conversation about the way we treat animals – including animals in laboratories. In order to ensure the UK really does uphold its promise, we need to scrutinise the Government’s efforts in the coming weeks and months and hold them accountable.

This is why Cruelty Free International is calling on the UK Government to stick to its word and outline an action plan to end reliance on outdated and unreliable animal experiments. Like those deployed in other important policy areas, the roadmap should contain agreed milestones, targets and timetables.

One example of how we can progress in this area is the prioritisation of new non-animal methods NAMS promise to deliver safer and more effective medicines more quickly and at less cost.

Yet, whilst NAMS are regularly shown to demonstrate far higher relevance to human diseases, and are widely supported by the general public, they continue to be woefully underfunded. This has to change. Not only do animal experiments cause inexcusable suffering to animals, but they are also not rooted in modern science. It is time we adopted a fundamentally different approach.

The human-relevant methodologies available to us and compelling research revealing that animal testing is largely ineffective, all support the need for us to end animal testing for good. All that is required now is for the Government to take the leap.  Whilst we welcome the Sentience Bill, we can’t ignore how much more still needs to be done to stop the millions of unnecessary animal tests that occur in the UK each year.