by Dr Jeanette Rowley
The Vegan Society works in many ways to support and improve provisions for vegans in various situations. Recently, it has launched a campaign to encourage vegan food provisions from various public authorities. The aim of the campaign is to ‘see every vegan receiving a good meal in public sector catering in the UK, and good vegan-friendly meals always available to anyone.’ This campaign represents, and is fundamental to our ethical responsibility to nonhuman animals and is, in part, grounded by the duties imposed on public authorities to respect and accommodate our legal rights. So, what are our rights as vegans that the public sector is obliged to take into account in the execution of their public function and delivery of services?
First of all, the Human Rights Act 1998 brings the European Convention on Human Rights in the domestic law of the UK. The Convention is a regional human rights treaty that lists a particular set of human rights that are considered to be important. One of these rights, sometimes called ‘Article 9’ on account of its number in the list, is the right to freedom of conscience, which is considered to be a primary human right. It exists to ensure that everyone is allowed to work out their own moral direction and to live, every day, practically, according to this ethical direction free from interference. The right to freedom of conscience is so important in the list of rights contained in the Convention, that it permits very limited grounds for lawful interference. If a public authority interferes with a person’s right to freedom of conscience, it must be on the basis that there is a law that is required for a very good reason, otherwise any interference will be unlawful. In fact, the Human Rights Act 1998 makes it very clear that public authorities must not act in contravention of a Convention right.
Some decades ago, judges at the European Court of Human Rights recognised that veganism is a legitimate matter of conscience for the application of human rights law. The judges spent no time analysing the validity of veganism as an ethical orientation. They simply agreed without debate, and also noted that the UK did not contest that veganism was a legitimate matter in human rights. Under the Human Rights Act 1998, vegans are protected as much as anyone else in their daily practice of living as vegans. Along with the duty imposed on the public sector to ensure compliance with the rights listed in the Convention, we should expect all public institutions to take seriously our needs as vegans. They should make every effort to ensure that as service providers, they do not intentionally or inadvertently interfere with our right to practice our freedom of conscience when we are in their care or control.
Secondly, we have the Equality Act 2010. The Equality and Human Rights Commission, in its Code of practice for ‘Services, public functions and associations’, says that this Act ‘sets a new expectation that public services must treat everyone with dignity and respect.’ This legislation also requires that public authorities ‘eliminate discrimination, harassment, victimisation and any other conduct that is prohibited by or under the Equality Act 2010’ and that they publish their equality objectives and provide written reports to explain how they are complying with their legal duties. Under this Act, vegans can argue for accommodation with reference to the protected characteristic of ‘religion and belief’. However, the public sector does not typically include veganism on forms that collect data. Usually, what we see when we are asked to fill in these forms is a list of various religions and the word ‘other’ but it is vital that vegans use this facility to encourage public authorities to take veganism seriously and make better provisions.
The Equality Commission recognises that vegans may have good grounds for complaints in law, and we know that legal reasoning regarding the cogency and coherence of a life lived with ethical regard for nonhuman animals, supports veganism as a credible non-religious philosophical belief. Nonetheless, there is a lack of institutional support for vegans and, certainly, currently no centralised governmental intention to legislate positively for them to benefit from good healthy nutritious vegan catering.
The advocacy team at the Vegan Society often hear from vegans in challenging situations in schools, hospitals and prisons. The difficulties vegans face were highlighted in a survey conducted 5 years ago. At that time, vegans were unfamiliar with the idea of claiming under rights and equality measures but since then, through the work of The Vegan Society and the International Vegan Rights Alliance, vegans around the world are coming together, realising the value of using law as a lever for institutional recognition and better provisions. However, there is much work to do, as is shown by the recent survey conducted by Go Vegan Scotland.
By participating in this important campaign, currently being run by The Vegan Society, vegans will claim their right to live according to the most basic human right: to be allowed the practice of their ethical convictions in their daily lives. They will contribute to the development of institutional recognition for veganism, help and support current transitioning vegans and, importantly, ensure that veganism, as a serious, cogent and healthy way of life, is promoted in important places and to significant professionals for its positive, holistic biopsychosocial benefits. ‘Bio’ because there are clear health benefits, ‘psycho’ because our surveys show that to be denied our basic rights and legal equality to live according to the moral conviction that it is wrong to exploit nonhuman animals, can cause us harm, and ‘social’ because it is clear that respect and ethical regard for nonhuman animals is already considered a profound social good (there are numerous other ‘social goods’ that are related to veganism).
Moreover, in the absence of specific UK legislation or institutional respect for veganism, participating in this campaign means that vegans can deal with devolved administrative power and play a critical role in influencing the many local authorities, schools, prisons, universities, hospitals and workplaces more directly. This campaign seeks to secure for vegans, and everyone else, good, healthy and honest food. It draws on, and foregrounds the primary human right to be free to live according to ethical convictions. For a number of reasons, not least justice for nonhuman animals, it is in everybody’s interest to give this our full support.