It is a great honour to follow Anna Turley, whose stories of Baby and Scamp were very moving. They do not have a voice—we are their voice, and we must shout as loud as we can. I am grateful to be appearing in my first sequel—“Finn’s law: the sequel”. I will not take up too much of the House’s time this afternoon.
To put my position simply, I am in favour of this Bill and the changes that it will introduce, as are my constituents in Clacton, many of whom keep animals and have contacted me to ask that I support the Bill. I am pleased to do exactly that today, because an increase to the paltry maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment for animal welfare offences, some of which we have heard about today, is so long overdue. As the Dogs Trust put it, the current sentences are woefully inadequate and far too low to deter offenders. I agree with that depressing conclusion and know that this Bill will go some way to correcting the shortcomings in the current legislation.
Moreover, as has been mentioned, the Bill will bring us into line with the legislation in other countries and parts of the United Kingdom and restore parity to the law, which, curiously, currently affords some animals stronger protections through higher sentences for abuse.
Perhaps most crucially, the Bill will shift punishment away from fines and on to serious prison sentences. That is an important change, as the courts may not currently impose large fines unless the offender can repay them in a reasonable time. That leaves us with too many abusers evading proper justice through short custodial sentences or paltry fines. To my mind, that is not an effective deterrent and I believe that that is why cases of abuse remain stubbornly high; the RSPCA investigated nearly 140,000 cruelty complaints last year, with 1,678 convictions.
As a keen advocate of animal welfare, I have heard too many harrowing stories of animal abuse. I have some first-hand experience of the aftermath: I went out on patrol with our dedicated local RSPCA officer Sam Garvey. We came across an animal close to death—not because of deliberate cruelty, but due to ignorance and neglect. That is another issue that we must pick up and run with, to make sure people know what is happening. The Bill will go some way towards bringing that into focus.
Many years ago, as I have mentioned here before, I took part in breaking up a puppy farming ring in Wales, where I saw dogs and puppies kept in the most appalling conditions. However, it was like a game of whack-a-mole: once we had broken one up, another came up straight away. I know too much about animal abuse in this country—for me, any case of abuse is one too many. I will do all I can to stop this cruelty from occurring. I am the owner of three wonderful, extremely noisy dogs, so this is a personal issue for me. I promise my dogs, when I get them, “I am going to give you the best life possible—I will look after you, and when that moment comes when I have to be firm, I will also do that too, and give you as good an end as possible.”
This Bill will introduce a strong deterrent. We are a nation of animal lovers, and we want to see the punishment fit the crime. The Bill will also, as Angela Smith mentioned, give judges the option of a higher custodial penalty, which they have been asking for for some time. I am therefore grateful to the Government for bringing forward this Bill, which is another example of our positive record on animal welfare, having already secured key changes such as the ban on third-party puppy and kitten sales, the prohibition of wild animals in circuses, CCTV in slaughterhouses, and the new—rather complicated —regulations that came into force last October to protect animal welfare.
However, while I truly celebrate our past achievements, I still want us to go further and cement our status as a global leader in animal welfare by continuing to raise the bar. We can do that only by relentlessly moving forward on animal welfare. That needs to include a ban on live animal exports when we leave the EU, a proper recognition of animal sentience when we leave the EU, and better labelling of meat products to de-incentivise the overproduction of religiously slaughtered meat that is then brought inadvertently on to the mainstream market. We must also do all we can to stop the unbelievable cruelty to cats and dogs around the world by setting an example in introducing a ban on consumption of their meat here in the UK. Certainly, those are conversations for another day—perhaps when considering a comprehensive animal welfare Bill, which I look forward to seeing in this place soon.
However, there are also ways in which we can maintain the positive trend of animal welfare developments that we have seen under this Government. This Bill is another positive example, which is why I will vote for it today and hope that it makes speedy progress through Parliament. In doing so, though, I would like to raise a concern brought to my attention by the Dogs Trust, which set out—this has been touched on by my hon. Friend Neil Parish—that although the increased penalties are welcome, they will inevitably see some cases taken to the High Court, with potentially lengthy proceedings to follow. That means that dogs seized during proceedings will spend protracted time in kennels while the cases goes through the courts. This has a potential impact on the dogs’ and cats’ welfare, and that seems to be counterproductive to the intention of this Bill. There are also capacity and cost issues involved in keeping a large number of dogs for such a long period. I assume that there will be a similar impact on other seized animals. Given that I have not yet been able to see an impact assessment for this Bill—I do not know whether one is planned—I do not yet know whether this has been considered by the Government. I therefore ask the Minister to say something about it in his closing remarks, or to me later, if possible.
I very much look forward to having the pleasure of voting for a piece of legislation that will do more to protect animals in the UK from abuse. As I have said many times before, it is a great honour to represent the constituents of the Clacton. My mailbag is full of animal welfare concerns, and I know that today I am speaking for my constituents. For me personally, when I leave this place—in the hopefully very distant future— I will look back on debates and votes like this with pride at the positive action I was a part of taking, as Paul O’Grady so famously says, for the love of dogs.