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The Week in Parliament

What a week! We’ve seen an astonishing byelection result (which we’ve written about here), some potentially very serious leadership failures in the DUP in Northern Ireland, and today England faces Scotland in the Euros. Hmm… one of these things is not like the others…

Westminster

Everyone loves a little furry animal. The ones with the cute eyes, and the baby-ish faces, and that propensity to jump up and greet you as if you were an old friend. It’s not often that the non-standard animals get asked about however. So this week, the House of Lords were asking “Would you befriend an octopus?” Alright, so maybe that’s not quite the question they were asking, but they did address our cephalopodic friends (I suppose I’ve just given away my position on the matter) in a debate on the Government’s Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill.

The Bill is one of the post-Brexit pieces of legislation designed to replace elements of the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union that we lost in leaving the EU. It’s purpose is relatively straightforward: to place on a statutory footing the principle that animals are sentient beings. Not, you might have thought, an issue that should have caused any particular controversy. You would, as you might have guessed from the way I wrote that, be wrong.

So where to begin? Well, with the fundamentals I suppose. Viscount Ridley went back to first principles, and the Government’s 2018 consultation on the matter, in which animals were defined as “an organism endowed with life, sensation and voluntary motion”. Not, he pointed out, a particularly useful definition, given that it would include bacteria, a completely separate scientific classification to animals. So lesson one, try and get your definitions right in your consultations.

Definitions, and where lines are drawn was also where our multiple-legged inky friends came in. Many species of octopus are highly intelligent, problem-solving animals with long memories who are able to identify individuals and, in one notable and highly amusing incident, persecute them over the course of years. The Government’s proposals however would restrict the protections to vertebrates- denying octopodes/octopuses (I don’t want to hear any of your nonsensical ‘octopi’ here) their rights to the protection of ‘sentience’, even though they- and many other animals not covered, undeniably have it.

This made me wonder about the process of arriving at the definitions used in consultations- should this issue have been the subject of pre-engagement work to determine what classifications should be used? Pre-engagement work can be very important in getting things right, and I think it’s likely there will be further fights over this in later stages of the bill. Me personally? Team octopus all the way.

Scotland

There are many differences between the Scottish and English and Welsh legal systems, but one of the most significant is in the availability of different verdicts that juries can deliver in criminal cases. Whereas in England and Wales the choice is binary (guilty/not guilty), at the moment in Scotland juries enjoy a third option, ‘not proven’. Substantively an acquittal, similar to ‘not guilty’, ‘not proven’ is often used in the modern legal system when the jury is of the belief that the defendant is guilty, but the prosecution has not provided sufficient evidence to convict.

The option has proved somewhat controversial, and the Scottish Government is currently conducting public engagement on whether to abolish it entirely and move to the binary system used in most other places in the world. They have already undertaken live engagement events with victims of incidents that returned ‘not proven’ verdicts, who have described the verdict as unclear in its meaning. A full consultation is due later in the year, and it will be interesting to see the results- such significant legal change is unlikely to be simply waved through, and although it’s unlikely there will be a big furore about it, there might be some interesting patterns in responses. We look forward to it landing on our desks.

About the Author

Stephen serves as the Institute’s Legal and Parliamentary Officer. Before joining the Institute Stephen studied Law at Bangor University and pursued a Masters’ degree in Aviation and Space Law at McGill University in Montreal. After this, he returned to London and was called to the bar in 2016 at the Honorable Society of Gray’s Inn, before deciding not to go into practice and move towards public policy work instead. Within the Institute, Stephen provides legal, political and policy analysis of UK and global current affairs of interest to consultors and consultees.

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