The Minister of State, Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord,
Lord Randall, for his sponsorship of this important Bill and the powerful manner in which he made the case. I also thank other noble Lords for their valuable contributions to today’s debate.
The Bill represents a government manifesto commitment to increase sentences for the worst acts of animal cruelty and it has the full support of the Government. It is just one element of the continued action that this Government are undertaking to improve animal welfare. Last year, we prohibited the commercial third-party sale of puppies and kittens in England. We launched an awareness-raising campaign to help to tackle low-welfare and illegal supply of pets. We have taken steps to ban the keeping of primates as pets and we have consulted on the compulsory microchipping of cats—the Government’s response will be published in due course. We have changed the law to require CCTV in slaughterhouses and will introduce measures soon to end excessive journeys for slaughter and fattening. We have also acted to understand the potential short-term animal welfare impacts related to Covid-19 controls by commissioning the Animal Welfare Committee to provide us with its independent advice.
These are just some of the actions that we are taking that build on our previous policies, including the support that we gave to the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Act, otherwise known as Finn’s law, which has been raised by a number of speakers today, including the noble Lord, Lord Dodds of Duncairn, and the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard—it received Royal Assent in April 2019.
As I am sure noble Lords will be aware, this Bill is complementary to Finn’s law. It will strengthen the penalties available where Finn’s law is applied, increasing the protections for our service animals. In short, the Bill extends the maximum penalty for the worst cases of animal cruelty in England and Wales from the current level of six months and/or an unlimited fine to five years’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. The noble Lord, Lord Randall, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, made the point that the Bill introduces one of the highest punishments for animal cruelty in the world. It is simple but vital, as it will allow courts to deliver a more proportionate punishment to those who perpetuate unspeakable cruelty towards animals.
I shall now reply to the important points made by Members of this House. We heard from the noble Lord, Lord Randall, of some truly awful cases of animal cruelty. As he said, in some cases of cruelty the judges involved stated that they would have handed down a higher sentence than six months had the law and guidelines allowed. The noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, mentioned her work as chair of the Horse Trust—I thank her for that—and discussed some of the reasons why people behave appallingly to animals. She, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, all made the case for education of pet owners. Clearly, there is a need for education. Indeed, the Government have engaged in one of their most successful ever communications campaigns, Petfished, to try to help prospective owners of cats, dogs and other animals to ensure that they are not providing custom to unscrupulous dealers or shops.
There is also a place for punishment and deterrents. The time needs to fit the crime, as in various ways the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, all said. For context, it is probably worth saying that other offences that can lead to up to five years in prison include, for example, abstracting electricity, allowing a dog to be dangerously out of control, causing actual bodily harm and fly-tipping. Against such offences, we consider it proportionate for the maximum sentence of animal welfare offences to be set at five years.
A number of noble Lords mentioned the RSPCA. The Government clearly recognise the enormously valuable work that that organisation does to improve the welfare of animals, including the role of prosecuting those who have breached the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Defra officials and those of other government departments are working with the RSPCA on proposed changes to transfer responsibility for prosecuting animal welfare offences to the Crown Prosecution Service. We are determined to ensure that while we work together in this area there is no reduction in the level of protection given to animals whose welfare has been compromised.
The noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, said that the Government previously had no plans to raise the maximum sentence and that this was in a sense something of a U-turn. With respect, that is not the case. We have had plans for some time—indeed, it was one of my first decisions as Minister responsible for animal welfare nearly two years ago to proceed with this proposal. She and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, talked about delays to the Bill. They are right that the Bill has experienced delays, but it is wrong to say that that was due to a change in the Government’s priorities. Events such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the emergency response work required have affected the parliamentary timetable horribly. The Government are fully behind this Bill and always have been.
The noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, mentioned that there is often a connection between cruelty to animals and cruelty to children, a point repeated by the noble Lords, Lord Taylor of Holbeach and Lord Trees, and the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, who backed up the assertion with some compelling evidence. The noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate, further backed up that assertion by using his long experience in the police force, citing in particular the grim case of Ian Brady. It is clearly right to make that connection.
The noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, and the noble Lord, Lord Oates, asked about sentencing guidelines, along with other noble Lords, and about the courts’ unwillingness to impose the full penalty. The Government have been in contact with the independent Sentencing Council about the change to the maximum penalty. There is an existing sentencing guideline in relation to animal cruelty offences under the Act, which was reviewed and updated by the council in 2017. The council has since confirmed that, when this Bill has passed, it will consider the need to revise the guideline and any revision will involve public consultation.
The noble Lord, Lord Dodds of Duncairn, raised the idea of a register of animal abusers. Persons convicted of animal cruelty or animal abuse are already captured on the police national computer, which provides a searchable single source of locally held operational police information. It brings together data and local intelligence so that every force can see what is known about an individual, including information relating to animal cruelty. The police have said they worry that a publicly available register of animal abusers could facilitate vigilantism, but I think the noble Lord is right to say these problems could be overcome.
The noble Lord, Lord Khan of Burnley, mentioned that he has been lobbied by pupils from his old school. That is wonderful to hear and testament to the importance that the British public attach to the issue of animal cruelty. It was a point also made well by the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate.
The noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, asked which types of offences would be included in the scope of this sentencing. Examples include causing unnecessary suffering to animals, carrying out non-exempted mutilation, docking tails except where permitted, poisoning animals, organising animal fights and so on.
The noble Lord, Lord Oates, made the point that this Bill, valuable though it is, is not a panacea. He is right, of course. It is part of a package of measures we will introduce in the coming weeks and months. He also mentioned the 18 weeks given to a person for engaging in unspeakable acts of cruelty to a cat.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, suggested that the Government had dropped proposals to recognise sentience of animals. With respect, that is not the case. It is worth remembering that it was the UK that pushed for a recognition of animal sentience to be included in Article 13 of the Lisbon treaty back in 2009. Now that we have left the EU and the transition period has finished, we can go much further than we ever could before. We will introduce legislation on animal sentience that will explicitly recognise the welfare of animals as sentient beings as soon as parliamentary time allows, but soon. It is worth saying that our methods and measures will go much further than those of the EU, which apply to a very limited number of EU policy areas and contain endless exemptions, almost to the point of making them meaningless.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, also questioned the Government’s commitment to animal welfare generally. The Government are completely committed to animal welfare. We have taken many steps already. I have mentioned requiring CCTV in all slaughterhouses and implementing one of the world’s toughest ivory bans. We have introduced new welfare standards for pet selling, dog breeding, hiring out horses, animal boarding and exhibiting animals. We have introduced a ban on the commercial third-party sale of puppies and kittens. There are a number of big, important changes in the pipeline. I cannot think of any Government who have done or are doing more on this agenda.
I thank my noble friend Lord Caithness for raising the SongBird Survival project and the research it has done into declining songbird populations. I will bring
that work to the attention of my officials so that they can consider whether it can inform our work on animal welfare.
Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, it is an offence to cause any unnecessary suffering to an animal or to fail to take reasonable steps to ensure the needs of an animal are met to the extent required by good practice. The penalty is an unlimited fine, being sent to prison for up to six months or both, but following a conviction for either of these offences the court can also ban the offender from keeping animals, as well as ordering that their animals are removed from them.
The noble Lord, Lord Trees, and a number of other noble Lords talked about the importance of enforcement. Of course, local authorities need the resources to carry out their duties, but every local authority at district level should already have officers able to enforce animal welfare laws.
The noble Lord also raised puppy smuggling, and the Government take this issue very seriously. It is a trade that causes suffering to the smuggled dogs and puts the health of pets and people in the UK at risk. We are working hard to tackle the problem, targeting both the supply and demand of illegally imported dogs. This approach includes enforcement, international engagement, tighter regulation and public communications, as well as collaboration with stakeholders, including the BVA and the Dogs Trust. Now that the transition period has ended, we have the opportunity to manage our own commercial and non-commercial import and pet travel arrangements. The Government will consider our pet travel and import arrangements as part of cracking down on puppy smuggling, in line with our manifesto commitment.
The noble Lord also mentioned the post-EU regime. We are firmly committed to upholding our high animal welfare standards outside the EU. We are co-designing an animal health and welfare pathway with industry to promote the production of healthier, higher-welfare animals at a level beyond compliance with current regulations. We are also looking to replace cross-compliance.
The noble Lord, Lord Naseby, mentioned his own dogs. I too have had the enormous joy and honour of incorporating numerous rescue dogs into my family, including at the moment. However, he mentioned that in England we are out of step with other areas of the UK. The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, made a similar point. I simply say that we are coming into line now on sentencing; it probably goes without saying that in numerous other areas of animal welfare, we are ahead of those other areas of the UK. The plans we have in the pipeline now are more ambitious for animal welfare, as far as I am aware, than those of any Government anywhere.
My noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond asked whether I would meet Department for Education colleagues to discuss animal welfare in citizenship and education. I can assure him that I will. He also asked whether there will be an animal welfare Bill. I am not at liberty, I am afraid, to make announcements of that sort but I can reassure him that we have a very ambitious pipeline of measures, which we will introduce shortly, on a range of animal welfare issues.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, talked first about sentencing for offences concerning animals in their wild state. Such sentencing is already a separate matter and not in scope of the Animal Welfare Act 2006. I think she made the point herself that that Act applies to vertebrate animals
“under the control of man”,
including wild animals under “permanent or temporary” control. That could include, for example, where a wild animal is caught in a trap or snare and it means that all animals under the control of man, whether domesticated or wildlife, will be subject to the new maximum penalty.
On the second issue that the noble Baroness raised, the Government take pet theft very seriously. We are concerned by reports that occurrences are on the rise and reviewing what official data is available to help us understand and establish the true scale of the problem. We are working actively across government right now to explore ways to address the issue that will be effective and have a meaningful impact on the problem. In the meantime, if someone causes an animal to suffer in the course of stealing it they are also liable to prosecution under the Animal Welfare Act 2006—and the increased penalty that this Bill provides may be applied.
I hope I have answered certainly most, if not all, of the questions put to me by noble Lords. I conclude on behalf of the Government by thanking noble Lords for their involvement in today’s debate, in particular my noble friend Lord Randall for his work in guiding the Bill through this House. We are a nation of animal lovers. The Bill reinforces that by answering the strong messages we have seen from parliamentarians, members of the judiciary, animal welfare organisations and the public on strengthening animal cruelty sentencing.
16 April 2021