A few days ago I received this messages from a constituent: “I see that you are one of the ‘people’ who voted that animals can’t feel pain or emotion. Have you ever actually met an animal??? They show far more emotion and intelligence than [you]. Disgraceful”.
This was surprising not least because I wasn’t even present for the vote - I was on a plane at the time.
The messages to MPs, many abusive, started after an Independent headline said that “The Tories have voted that animals can’t feel pain”. The report was widely shared through social media, including by celebrities, and within hours had reached literally millions of people.
Yet the report was, quite simply, untrue. There was a legalistic discussion on the Brexit Bill Commitee as to whether an advisory EU measure that classifies animals as ‘sentient beings’ should be specifically imported into the UK law in the Bill.
The Minister said the amendment was unnecessary, and that the UK would remain a “world leader” on animal welfare. Leaving the EU would actually free us to develop our own “gold-standard” protections. For instance, we are currently prevented from banning the export of live horses for slaughter.
But the Minister also said that the Government would “consider how we might explicitly reflect that sentience principle in wider UK legislation”.
Despite this entirely resonable stance, the Green MP, Caroline Lucas, pushed the issue to the vote. The RSPCA then briefed the press that the decision was “shocking”, that animals were “not commodities”, and that this was a “backwards step for animal welfare”. The politics reaked of farmland manure.
In the last few months, the Government has announced that CCTV will be mandatory in all slaughterhouses – going beyond any EU rule. It is consulting on draft legislation to jail animal abusers for up to five years – more than almost every other European nation.
It has proposed a ban on the ivory trade which is more comprehensive than anywhere else in Europe, and a ban on microbeads which harm animals in oceans which is the strongest in Europe.
The Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, has confirmed that UK law will ensure animal sentience is recognised after we leave the EU. But we are still being bombarded with e-mails generated by pressure groups.
It was once said that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes. That was before social media. Today fake news can be circulated to millions with one malevolent click of a mouse.