Brexit must work for animals too, Britain's Environment Secretary Michael Gove said Tuesday, promising that welfare standards would improve after leaving the European Union.
"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," said Gove, a leading pro-Brexit campaigner for the 2016 EU referendum.
Gove was presenting a draft law that would enshrine the concept of animal sentience into British law and introduce new jail sentences for animal abusers.
"Britain outside the European Union can have higher standards on the environment and indeed on animal welfare," he said.
The move follows a social media storm after MPs last month during a heated Brexit debate voted against transposing an EU protocol recognising animals as sentient beings into British law.
Commentators took that to mean MPs had voted to say animals did not have feelings.
"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," he said.
"Our plans will also increase sentences for those who commit the most heinous acts of animal cruelty to five years in jail."
Animal rights groups hailed the draft law, with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals calling the move "very bold and welcome".
As it rejects EU exemptions for activities such as bullfighting and foie gras production, the law would offer "even stronger protection" than the EU protocol "could ever do", said spokesman David Bowles.
Humane Society International UK's director Claire Bass said it was a "promising start to Mr Gove's ambition to enhance animal protection post-Brexit".