Gove insists Brexit is great for animal welfare, with draft bill raising jail time for cruelty

Leaving the European Union will help Britain improve animal welfare standards, Michael Gove has said.

The Environment Secretary said it was "good news" that the first stage of Brexit negotiations had been completed so the government could focus on trade and the positive outcomes of leaving.

Gove's comments came as a draft bill enshrining animal sentience into UK law and introducing five-year jail sentences for animal cruelty was published, part of a plan to make sure Brexit works "not just for citizens but for the animals we love and cherish too."

Speaking on Monday at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home in London, Gove said: "I think it's good news that we've got an agreement to move to the next stage of the Brexit negotiations, where we can talk about trade and talk about some of the changes that will work in Britain's interest.

"I'm glad that we're now at this stage because actually Britain outside the European Union can have higher standards on the environment and indeed on animal welfare.

"And one of the reasons why people voted to leave the European Union is to make sure that when it comes to, for example things like puppy smuggling, that we can have the rules here which ensure that there is appropriate welfare and appropriate protection for animals and for humans."

Gove pushed back on concerns raised last month after MPs voted against an amendment to the EU Bill that would have transferred an EU protocol recognising animals as sentient beings into domestic law.

The Environment Secretary said it was not a vote against the idea that animals feel pain, but said the amendment risked creating legal confusion.

The draft bill says the Government "must have regard to the welfare needs of animals as sentient beings in formulating and implementing government policy," while increasing the maximum prison sentence for animal abuse from six months to five years in England and Wales.

"As we leave the EU we will deliver a Green Brexit, not only maintaining but enhancing animal welfare standards," Gove said.

"Animals are sentient beings who feel pain and suffering, so we are writing that principle into law and ensuring that we protect their welfare.

"Our plans will also increase sentences for those who commit the most heinous acts of animal cruelty to five years in jail.

"We are a nation of animal lovers so we will make Brexit work not just for citizens but for the animals we love and cherish too."

Claire Horton, chief executive of Battersea Cats and Dogs Home, said the rescue centre was "delighted" by the announcement.

She said: "It will make a massive difference for animals and hopefully really start to act as a deterrent and put England back where it should be at the top of the league tables for animal welfare."

David Bowles, the RSPCA's head of public affairs said: "This is potentially great news for animals post-Brexit.

"To include the recognition of animal sentience as well as increasing animal cruelty sentencing to five years into the new 2018 Animal Welfare Bill is a very bold and welcome move by the Government.

"Even better, the legislation explicitly rejects the kind of exemptions for activities that the European Union deemed acceptable - such as bullfighting and producing foie gras - which will offer even stronger protection than Article 13 of the EU Treaty could ever do."