Proposed UK Government Commission to tackle Domestic Abuse offers lessons for reducing animal harm

One of the key measures in the new Domestic Abuse Bill being laid before Parliament is the establishment, on a statutory footing, of an ‘Independent Office of the Domestic Abuse Commissioner’. The intended task of the Office is to lead government policy on preventing domestic abuse, including the publication of reports to hold Government to account for its impact in this field. A ‘Designate’ Domestic Abuse Commissioner was appointed in September 2019, pending the assent of legislation to formally establish the body. Importantly, the government has appointed a Commissioner, Nicole Jacobs, who has the necessary commitment and experience having worked for anti-domestic abuse charities.

This proposal indicates the government’s belief that it is necessary and desirable to establish a specific body dedicated to driving improvements in tackling domestic abuse. This ‘institutionalises’ this goal within the government machine, and therefore makes it more likely that the government will actually succeed in tackling this evil.

Meanwhile, in the field of animal protection policy, since our creation in 2011 the Centre for Animals and Social Justice has been calling for a similar type of body – an ‘Animal Protection Commission’ – to establish animal protection as a government priority and therefore lead improvements in preventing animal harm. Although this critical proposal has gained support from most of the UK animal protection movement and some political parties, it has met with strong resistance from within government. It is also important to bear in mind that the idea of an APC predates the election of the Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition Government in 2010, and thus general indifference towards animal harm can be found across the political spectrum and, indeed, is a deeply institutionalised feature of the British state.

This raises the question: why has government accepted the logic of an independent anti-domestic abuse body, but not for a similar body to reduce animal harm? One of the biggest factors behind this situation is that, unlike domestic abuse, many forms of deliberate animal harm – e.g. farming systems such as intensive broiler production – are legalised, supported by government, and perpetrated by powerful economic interests who dominate government policy-making. This means that animal harm is not seen straightforwardly as a ‘problem’ by government, and so they do not perceive the need for any systematic ‘solution’, such as an APC.

However, this indifference to animal suffering isn’t just found where there are powerful countervailing interests. The UK has some of the feeblest anti-cruelty legislation in the world, with a maximum prison sentence for animal cruelty offences under the Animal Welfare Act of just six months. A growing backlash against gratuitous animal abusers getting away with their crimes has finally led to government proposals to increase maximum sentences to 5 years, but this long-overdue improvement remains on the drawing board. The lack of any voice to represent animals within the government machine is a key reason for the historic failure to make the punishment fit the crime in this field.

The appointment of the Designate Domestic Abuse Commissioner shows that government understands the basic principle that if a policy goal is important, it should be reflected in the institutional architecture of the state. In other words those values need to be properly represented in government. It gives some hope that government might learn the lesson that the same applies in the field of animal protection.