VETS have urged the UK Government to deliver on its promise to enshrine recognition of animal sentience in law.

Pre-Brexit, animal welfare campaigners raised concerns that the EU Withdrawal Act 2018 did not include provision to transfer animal sentience into UK legislation.

The UK's Animal Welfare Act 2006 acknowledges that animals can experience suffering and pain but does not label them as sentient – the recognition that animals are thinking, feeling beings.

British Veterinary Association senior vice president, Daniella Dos Santos, expressed her disappointment at the slow progress being made by the Government, and called for swift action in order to maintain the UK's position as a global leader on animal welfare.

Back in December 2017, officers and representatives from the BVA and 18 species divisions and affiliate groups signed a letter calling on the Government to enshrine sentience in UK law.

Now, 40 months on since then Environment Secretary Michael Gove stated that the Government was ‘acting energetically’ to strengthen protections for animals after Brexit, progress continues to stall, with the Government saying that it will find the appropriate vehicle to introduce it into law ‘when parliamentary business allows’.

Campaigners note that the UK missed just such an opportunity when it rejected amendments to include sentience during the EU Withdrawal Bill Committee stage in the Commons.

BVA’s recently published position on animal sentience recognises the growing evidence base demonstrating the capacity of animals across species to have feelings including pain and pleasure, implying a level of conscious awareness. As such, 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.

Ms Dos Santos said: “Michael Gove promised ‘energetic’ action on sentience back in 2017, following concerted campaigning by veterinary associations and animal welfare organisations and a huge outpouring of public feeling. After such a promising start, it’s so disappointing that this fundamental principle of animal welfare has still not got over the line and into law 40 months on from this commitment," she stressed.

"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,” she concluded.

A Defra spokesperson said: “We’re proud to have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world and we are fully committed to strengthening them further to ensure all animals avoid any unnecessary pain, distress or suffering.

“That is why the Government has committed to introducing new laws for animal sentience. These will be brought forward as soon as parliamentary time allows.”