My hon. Friend makes a good point. The aim of the Government’s work in this policy area is to highlight that tethering should be for the short term. We want these animals to be as socialised as possible.
The 2006 Act is backed up by a number of statutory codes of practice, including the code for the welfare of horses, ponies, donkeys and their hybrids. The code provides owners and keepers with information on how to meet their animals’ welfare needs and includes a specific section on how to tether horses and other animals covered by the code. Although it is not a specific offence to breach a provision of the code, if proceedings are brought against someone, the court will look at whether they complied with the statutory code in deciding whether they have committed an offence. That makes the code a key document in relation to prosecutions for animal welfare offences. We are very grateful for the input and assistance from the British Horse Council and the Horse Trust in particular, and for their advice last year on the changes we made to the code, which was updated in April 2018.
I should clarify that tethering is not a banned activity, as there are circumstances in which tethering may avoid a greater risk of harm arising—for example, if a horse strayed into a place of danger. That point was made by World Horse Welfare in the statement issued this week, which said:
“We are concerned that banning tethering could lead to more horses kept indoors where their welfare cannot be monitored, or left to wander freely, endangering both themselves and the general public.”
Tethering is defined under the code as
“securing an animal by an appropriately attached chain, to a centre point or anchorage, causing it to be confined to a desired area.”
Furthermore, the code states that tethering
“is not a suitable method of long-term management of an animal,” but
“may be useful as an exceptional short-term method of animal management”.
I think that goes a long way towards addressing the first and third changes that my hon. Friend proposed.
Although tethering is not prevented or illegal under the code, the code does include detailed specific advice on tethering and how it should be done properly. It details which animals are not suitable for tethering and provides advice on a suitable and appropriate site—for example, a site should not allow the horse access to a public highway or public footpaths. That helps to address the second change proposed by my hon. Friend. To tether a horse in such a way that it can physically be on a pavement or road is clearly contrary to the code and therefore open to enforcement action.
In addition to the statutory welfare code, other organisations provide advice on tethering. For example, World Horse Welfare has drawn attention to the code of practice produced by the National Equine Welfare Council specifically on tethering. In addition, the British Horse Society has produced a helpful leaflet that is available online, and provides advice to anyone with concerns. The Redwings equine welfare charity also has useful advice on tethering, as does the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which has also produced guidance on tethering. Our concern today, though, is not with necessary tethering that is undertaken in the short term, in the right way and in exceptional circumstances, in order to avoid a greater risk of harm arising; it is with avoidable and unacceptable tethering.
Under the 2006 Act, local authorities have powers to investigate concerns about the welfare of animals and if necessary to seize them—if they are suffering, for example. They can also prosecute if someone is neglecting an animal in their care. In addition, the way the Act is drafted means that anyone can bring forward a prosecution under the Act, and it is on this basis that the RSPCA prosecutes many hundreds of people each year for animal cruelty or neglect. It is important that we all recognise the important work the RSPCA does in this area.
Those convicted of such crimes under the Act can be subject to an unlimited fine or imprisonment for up to six months. I am pleased to say that the Government have announced that they are increasing the maximum custodial penalty for animal cruelty from six months to five years of imprisonment. Jim Shannon will be very aware that the five-year penalty is already in place in Northern Ireland and we look forward to having it in England, too.
If anyone is concerned about how a horse or other animal has been tethered they should report the matter either to the relevant local authority or to the RSPCA, which can investigate and if necessary take the matter further. If a horse or other animal is found not to be tethered appropriately, that could lead to a prosecution under the 2006 Act.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate mentioned the important role of local authorities in this area and the need for them to appoint animal welfare officers. Local authorities have strong powers to enforce welfare controls and often work in partnership with the RSPCA or other welfare charities, or indeed with other local authorities that have expertise in horse management.
Enforcement can be targeted according to local priorities and needs. In some areas, for example, horse abandonment or poor tethering practice might be an issue. In others it may be non-existent. We encourage all interested parties to work together at local level to use the available powers to address the problem of abandoned or incorrectly tethered horses. Local authorities have powers under the 2006 Act to appoint welfare inspectors, as my hon. Friend pointed out, and I encourage them to do so to meet the needs of residents and equines in their area.