Article 13, Brexit and Animals as Sentient Beings

Farm Cat

On 15th November, MPs in the Houses of Commons voted against (313 against vs. 295 for its inclusion) an amendment clause (NC30) which aimed to aid animal welfare post-Brexit.  This clause would’ve meant that Article 13 of the Title II of the Lisbon Treaty, an article about animal sentience and welfare, was introduced into UK law.  The rejection of the clause lead to a backlash towards the government with headlines suggesting MPs don’t believe that animals are sentient beings.  The reports regarding the rejection of the amendment sent shockwaves across both the animal industry and social media.  But what does this all mean, what is a “sentient being” and are UK laws revolving animal welfare going to be substantial post-brexit?


What is a Sentient Being?

The Oxford Dictionary’s definition of Sentient is [to be] “Able to perceive or feel things”.  So a sentient being is one which can perceive or feel what is occurring to or around them and so they can experience pain and suffering.  A long-held belief by most in the UK is that vertebrate animals are sentient beings (with an increasing belief that invertebrates are also sentient) just like humans.  The belief that animals are able to suffer was noted by the Brambell Report investigating the welfare of intensely farmed livestock and commissioned by the UK government in 1965. The Brambell Report is still a cornerstone of animal welfare as it lead to the Five Freedoms still used by animal organisations today.

The Five Freedoms

The Five Freedoms state the following;

  • Freedom From Hunger and Thirst,
  • Freedom From Discomfort,
  • Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease,
  • Freedom to Express Normal Behaviour, and,
  • Freedom from Fear and Distress.

The Five Freedoms make up the basic guidelines for the care of domesticated animals in the UK and is what the Animal Welfare Act, 2006, is based upon.


So What is Article 13?

Prior to the introduction of Article 13 in 2009, animals being shipped only had the same status as other goods.  By this point the UK government was well aware of animals being sentient and able to suffer so, after much pressure from the UK and other member states,  Article 13 was added to the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU.  Article 13, which followed on from several non-legal treaties, and stated that all member states had to “pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals”.  The article expresses that wild and owned animals must be cared for in a way which doesn’t cause suffering. Article 13, however, does have its flaws, namely towards activities “relating in particular to religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage” whereby animal welfare may not be paid full regards.  One example of these limitations to the article is that in specific regions of Spain and France Bull-fighting occurs due to a cultural tradition.  This tradition is still allowed under the article regardless of the very poor levels of welfare the bulls face.  Article 13 also protects the practice of non-stun religious slaughter in specific groups such as Halal slaughter for Muslims and Shechita slaughter for Jews which both create animal welfare concerns.

So why couldn’t Article 13 Just Be Transferred into UK Law?

Article 13 contains the phrase “since animals are sentient beings” which, whilst believed to be true by many, isn’t accepted by every organisation throughout the UK so cannot currently be placed as fact, despite masses of evidence surrounding it.  Until the whole of the UK  believe this to be fact, the wording cannot be transferred straight into UK Law.  Also, article 13 reads that member states should “pay full regard to the welfare of animals”.  In the UK the wording “full regard” brings further legal concerns as if this were placed straight into UK law it would be at odds with other laws such as The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, 1986.  Animals used in research covered by The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, 1986, may experience periods of low welfare even when treated as laid out in the licence.  As these animals can legally be exposed to poor welfare this would be at odds with a law stating that full regard should be paid to animal welfare and so the two laws don’t function well together.


Why Does the UK Need a Law Like Article 13 Post-Brexit?

The UK’s standard of Animal Welfare is regarded to be amongst the highest in the world. Law’s such as the Animal Welfare Act 2006 in England and Wales (with equivalents in Scotland and Northern Ireland) ensures welfare remains above defined levels.  The UK also has a more stringent law around Animal testing (The Animals’ (Scientific Procedures) Act, 1986) than the USA has. Why, therefore, does the UK need more animal welfare-related laws?

The current UK animal laws cover only domesticated animals owned by people (whether as pets, farm animals or research animals).  Wild animals are often non-domesticated and aren’t owned by anyone and so are not currently protected by UK law but are, instead, covered by the aforementioned EU law.  On leaving the EU, if the parts of Article 13 revolving wild animals do not become part of UK law, then UK wild animals will no longer be legally protected.

So do MPs Voting Down NC30 deny that Animals are Sentient?

Following on from 15th November where 313 (a majority of eighteen) MPs voted against NC30,  a lot of newspaper headlines and social media posts claimed the MPs voting against NC30 deny that animals are sentient beings.  There were campaigns against individual MPs voting against the amendment, some of which contrasted their vote against the notion with previous posts they’d made about their pets suffering.  People were confused and believed all the MPs voting against the amendment believe that animals do not have feelings and/ or are incapable of suffering.  Whilst this may be the case with some politicians it’s unlikely to be the case with all and posts MPs said over the coming days highlighted they believe animals are sentient.


So Why Did NC30 Get Voted Out?

After an eight hours debate a large number of reasons for and against the amendment were likely brought up.  There’s a high chance some MPs believed that the current UK legislation goes far enough.  This may be due to them not realising UK legislation doesn’t cover all animals leaving a large hole surrounding wildlife won leaving the EU.


Secondly, it may be because Article 13 doesn’t have the scope that’s needed in today’s world.  For instance, puppies are smuggled or brought into the UK legally from across the EU to sell to unsuspecting people, often via the internet.  The welfare of such animals is not currently protected in UK law and Article 13 doesn’t cover this huge welfare issue.  On top of this Article 13 doesn’t prevent religious non-stun slaughter or low welfare standards caused by cultural practices with animals in specific regions such as bull-fighting.  Maybe NC30 was voted down because it simply doesn’t go far enough and thus a majority government want to create a law which encompasses more than this.  I am sceptical of this optimistic approach as nothing was stopping MPs voting for NC30 but on the notion that it will be added to before becoming UK law.


It could also be due to the wording of the EU Articles compared to that of a UK law in that it was easier to restart the whole rule.  Saying that, if they were going to reject this amendment purely due to wording then surely they’d be doing this to all amendments passing from EU to UK law and not just this one.  Whilst the grammar around the suggestion that animals are sentient isn’t how it’d be mentioned in a UK law (as mentioned earlier), I don’t think they’d reject an amendment purely on that basis.


Finally, there may be something more of an unpleasant agenda for animal welfare on the way.  Pst-Brexit, the UK have to trade with countries outside of the EU for all goods. One major way the UK government is looking at reaching the demands for food is by buying products from animals produced in the USA.  The USA is economically greater than the UK and are able to produce vast amounts of food and will have no problems meeting the UK’s food deficit once we leave the single market.  The USA, however, often farm animals in a lower welfare state than the EU/ UK.  The cattle are raised on food lots with much higher stocking densities than beef farms here.  If the UK government introduce a law similar to article 30 then it may be illegal to purchase produce raised in the USA which is both cheaper and more readily available than what many other countries can supply.  It may simply be that the UK government are focussing more on the economics of feeding a growing population than animal welfare.  Though I understand that economically this may make sense it does mean a big U-turn in the outward stance the UK has given towards animal welfare to the global population. If the UK government allows lower welfare produce to be bought from the USA due to economic reasons it will cause great suffering to a growing population of animals across the world which is ethically and morally wrong.  This will affect the whole world given the supposed world leaders in welfare are at the helm of this economically driven decision and thus aren’t being the role model for welfare standards that they should be.

Sheep Dog

What’s Occurred Since the Vote?

The British Veterinary Association created an open letter which was signed by 1,194 veterinary surgeons (including myself), nurses and students and published in The Daily Telegraph on 28th November which gained the recognition of other newspapers and MPs.  A high-profile politician,  Micheal Gove MP, Secretary of State for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs replied to this letter.  Mr Gove stated that the sentience of animals is not under question, that MPs believe animals are definitely sentient and that regardless of NC30 being voted against (mirroring his vote), he will ensure that the sentience of animals is enshrined into UK law.


Though last month’s vote against the addition of Article 13 into UK law has the potential to reduce welfare across animals being traded with the UK, IF a new law equals Article 13 the welfare of animals in the UK should be protected post-Brexit.  Some of the headlines were misleading regarding the vote in that it wasn’t purely a vote against the notion of animal sentience but both the headlines and the vote will have damaged the UK’s reputation as a world leader for animal welfare.  Currently laws are introduced into the UK to protect animal welfare such as the presence of CCTV filming in abattoirs, an outcome of high profile campaigns.  Laws such as the presence of CCTV show that the government has at least some level of commitment towards animal welfare and that they at least reduce suffering in animal’s awaiting slaughter.

A Sudden U-Turn and Bold Statement for UK animal welfare.

At the time of writing, the government have just announced a draft Animal Welfare Bill stating the government “must have regard to the welfare needs of animals as sentient beings in formulating and implementing government policy”.

So, what lead to this U-turn, within a month MPs have gone from rejecting the NC30 amendment to UK law to creating a draft bill which states that animals are sentient beings.  Note, however, this doesn’t state “full regard” as article 13 does suggesting that they may not be held as accountable for all impingements in welfare; potentially the importation of meat from reduced welfare states?  Though I don’t know most of the details of this draft bill it does sound like it is very extensive.  One of the main cornerstones of its proposals is a rise in the maximum jail sentence for animal cruelty from a mere six months to five years. This increased sentence is something which has been fought for before and lost but it being in the proposed bill itself is a huge statement towards animal welfare.


It looks like the pressure placed on the government through media campaigns, petitions and open letters may have won!  We can only hope this draft bill gets passed.

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Author: Kim Halford

I'm a qualified vet and animal behaviour and welfare advisor. I am dedicated to improving the welfare of animals. I also want to work with organisations to improve the education of animal welfare and behaviour as well as improve the bond between animal and owner.

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