On Friday, environment secretary Michael Gove appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme to defend the government against the backlash that has erupted in the wake of the House of Commons vote on animal sentience. He denied that MPs had voted against the notion animals were sentient, and claimed social media had “distorted” the facts.

In fact, his plans for a green Brexit included having the “best possible protection of animal welfare anywhere in the world” Gove told the BBC.

Right. So what did the government actually vote against?

An amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill tabled by Green MP Caroline Lucas, which would have incorporated the EU protocol on animal sentience set out in Article 13 of the Lisbon Treaty into UK law.

Article 13 recognises that animals are “sentient beings”, which feel pain and emotion, and puts the onus on the state to “pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals” when formulating and implementing agriculture, fisheries, transport, research and space policies.

On the other hand, existing UK law doesn’t explicitly acknowledge that animals have feelings and emotions, and puts the onus for welfare on the owners and keepers of animals.

“The government have rightly and commendably committed to transferring all existing EU law on animal welfare into UK law under the Bill, but because the text of the Lisbon Treaty is not transferred by the Bill, the wording of article 13 on animal sentience will not explicitly be incorporated into UK law,” Lucas told the House of Commons.

Why the social media backlash?

MPs rejected the amendment by a vote of 313 to 295, with the prime minister later stepping in to say Britain’s animals were already protected under the UK Animal Welfare Act.

Caroline Lucas and other campaigners reacted angrily, arguing the Animal Welfare Act only provided protection for domestic animals, leaving wild animals and those used for research potentially at risk from future government policies.

The RSPCA said the vote was a “backward step” for the UK, while Helen Browning, CEO of the Soil Association, accused the government of “paving the way” for lower animal welfare standards.

A change.org petition calling on the government to repeal its decision to exclude animal sentience in the EU withdrawal Bill had gathered more than 200,000 signatures at the time of writing.

Will animal welfare standards fall? 

Not according to Gove. ‘It has been suggested that the vote somehow signalled a weakening in the protection of animals - that is wrong,’ he said in a written ministerial statement on Thursday. ‘Voting against the amendment was not a vote against the idea that animals are sentient and feel pain.’

Gove insisted amendment proposed by Lucas was ‘faulty’ because article 13 had failed to prevent practices across the EU that were cruel and painful to animals, such as the live export of animals for slaughter.

MPs do want to include recognition of animal sentience in law. They just don’t want the EU’s version, he said. ‘This government will ensure that any necessary changes required to UK law are made in a rigorous and comprehensive way to ensure animal sentience is recognised after we leave the EU. The Withdrawal Bill is not the right place to address this, however we are considering the right legislative vehicle.’

In the meantime, the UK government is determined to go ‘above and beyond’ the EU when it comes to animal welfare, Gove said.