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Don't drop Kept Animals Bill commitments

Emma Slawinski
July 13, 2023

It was perhaps fitting that one of Boris Johnson's final acts as a Member of Parliament was to visit the fabulous RSPCA team at the Hillingdon Animal Clinic in his Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency - just days before penning his dramatic resignation statement.

When Johnson became Prime Minister, his speech on the Downing Street steps pledged to “promote the welfare of animals” as a cause “so close to the hearts of the British people”. And there were some good results for animals during his tenure - an Agriculture Act helping farmers drive up environmental and animal welfare standards whilst producing high quality food, and an Environment Act setting binding biodiversity targets. 

His Government also raised sentences for the most egregious acts of animal cruelty, backed the recognition of animal sentience in UK law, and supported measures like banning horrific glue traps. The jewel in the crown for animals, however, was the Kept Animals Bill, introduced in May 2021.

The Kept Animals Bill was a wide-ranging piece of legislation containing solutions to long-running problems, and delivered on several Conservative manifesto commitments. It pledged to ban live exports - regarded as a key benefit of Brexit. It would also restrict the keeping of primates as pets, tackle cruel pet theft, and restrict puppy imports. It marked a collection of policies that would have made great strides for animals.

But the Bill was ultimately doomed. While politicians dithered, animals suffered. In November 2021, it began an extended period of parliamentary limbo that would last an agonising 550 days.

Then, just weeks ago, the Bill was unceremoniously binned, replaced with vague commitments that its policy pledges would instead be taken forward by other parliamentary routes. It was a decision which led Johnson to include a line in his resignation statement claiming that the UK Government had "junked" the chance to "promote animal welfare".

In the UK, we pride ourselves on being a nation of animal lovers and, until recently, set the pace for animal welfare internationally. The 2023 Animal Kindness Index, a landmark poll from the RSPCA, Scottish SPCA and USPCA launched last month, underlines that people do indeed care deeply about this country’s pets, farm animals and wildlife.

Crucially, the Index shows that a whopping 83% of people want politicians to act for animals, and believe welfare should be protected by the government through legislation. And while any overall assessment of Johnson’s administration would undoubtedly split the country, there can be little argument that animal welfare was a significant issue for him and his ministers. 

83% of people want politicians to act for animals Quote

The eventual fate of the Kept Animals Bill is now a stain on that record, and Rishi Sunak and his team must keep their word and make sure that all the elements of the bill do become law before the impending General Election, likely next year.

Our Animal Kindness Index points to a worrying behaviour gap between people’s desire to be kind and having the information and infrastructure to enact that kindness. What people believe, and what they actually do, are not necessarily aligned - a problem heightened when the same is true of government and some parts of industry; where words don’t always align with actions to tackle animal suffering, despite the health and wellbeing of our planet depending on us having a much more compassionate and respectful relationship with all animals. 

The RSPCA wants to encourage people to make everyday choices that are kinder to animals - from what they eat and how they spend their money to how they shape their communities. But to truly inspire people to be kind, we need action - and kindness - from the very top.

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Emma Slawinski is Director of Policy, Prevention and Campaigns at the RSPCA.

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