Backlash over legal reforms that protect lobsters from the boiling pot

Concerns raised over UK bill that could throw up new welfare restrictions for marine animals

Newly proposed legislation in the UK Parliament aims to provide unprecedented protection for octopuses, lobsters and crabs from unnecessary suffering, but the bill's opponents say it would wreak havoc on the country's economy.

The legislation's defenders see it as bold effort to protect any creature with a spine from needless harm. Its detractors have revolted, fearing a costly new vista of regulations that would encumber agriculture and fisheries for decades to come.

The protection of a new range of animals under the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill would create a new body to recommend potential safeguards for the creatures, but rebel government backbenchers lined up on Tuesday to oppose the first of the potential protections.

The proposed legislation was also condemned by rural Conservative backbenchers who deemed it unnecessary and potentially harmful to the countryside economy.

Announcing the second reading of the bill — when it is first debated by MPs — Environment Secretary George Eustice pointed out that Britain was the first country in the world to introduce animal welfare legislation by recognising the concept of sentience in 1822 legislation.

“How we treat animals and the legislation we have to govern animal welfare is a hallmark of a civilised society,” he told Parliament.

A curled octopus outside its rock crevice home in the UK. Alamy

While Britain had consistently introduced laws to protect animals, Mr Eustice argued that it was necessary to “refine our legislation”.

“This bill offers recognition that non-human vertebrates, that is animals with a spine, and additionally decapod crustaceans, such as lobsters, and cephalopod molluscs, such as octopuses, are also sentient. This means that they are capable of experiencing pain or suffering,” Mr Eustice said.

The bill will also give ministers the authority to add other species “if there is good scientific evidence that those particular species are sentient”, Mr Eustice said.

When the bill becomes law, an Animal Sentience Committee made up of animal experts will issue reports on whether government decisions have taken sentient animal welfare into account. Ministers will have to respond to the committee’s reports in Parliament.

The decision comes after a new study reviewed hundreds of scientific papers on pain reception among the invertebrate groups.

But MPs raised concerns that it would give animal rights groups the opportunity to oppose traditional British hunting and fishing activities as well as potentially infringe on religious groups. Concerns were raised that the law could potentially cause issues for Muslim and Jewish communities in Britain over the slaughter of animals.

While the government has given assurances it would not attack practices such as shechitah and halal, MPs argued that animal rights lobbyists could use it for litigation against specific communities.

“It opens up indirect lines of attack that could easily be put to use to prejudice and damage these minority religious practices,” said Conservative MP Jonathan Djanogly

He added that it would complicate rural activities and it was a “poor piece of legislation”.

“The game shooting lobby has become increasingly litigious and regularly use judicial review to query a wide range of shooting issues,” he argued.

“What is there to gain out of this bill, other than some sort of short-term, soft publicity that this government is somehow about being nice to animals?”

His concerns were supported by fellow Tory MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, who raised the potential economic issues.

“This bill could deliver another weapon into the hands of animal rights groups that could damage both government and those who live and work with animals,” he said.

“Shooting, conservation and angling are highly important to the UK economy. Shooting contributes about £2 billion to the GDP and supports the equivalent of 74,000, full time jobs. Angling is estimated to be worth £4bn to the UK economy and responsible for upwards of 40,000 jobs.”

The seafood bar during Friday brunch at the 2020 Club by Emaar at Expo 2020 Dubai. Victor Besa / The National

He also raised concerns that it was a publicity stunt by the government under pressure from animal rights activists.

“We need to make sure that the Animal Sentience Committee set up by this bill does not have any unforeseen or perverse consequences, and that this bill is not introduced simply as a PR exercise to meet the demands on activist groups.”

However, as the bill has cross-party support, it is likely to pass Tuesday’s second reading then move on to the committee stage before becoming law later this year.

Updated: January 18, 2022, 5:39 PM