Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:53 pm on 10th July 2019.

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Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East 2:53 pm, 10th July 2019

I start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend Anna Turley. I am not very good at doing the more emotional stuff—perhaps it is the former lawyer in me—but I must admit that when she was talking about what had happened to Baby the bulldog, I found that very difficult to listen to; I think we all did. That is particularly because when I was growing up our family had a bulldog called Buster, who was a very fine dog, much loved and spoilt by all of us. The idea that somebody could treat a bulldog, or indeed any living creature, in that way, film themselves doing it and relish that experience, is terrible. As my hon. Friend said, it was purely by chance that the perpetrators were ever apprehended and prosecuted. I was going to say “brought to justice”, but I think we can all agree that they were not really brought to justice given the lenient sentence that the courts were forced to impose.

I very much welcome the fact that this Bill is being brought forward today. As we have heard, it has taken far too long. My hon. Friend brought forward her private Member’s Bill in 2017. We have not had an adequate explanation as to why the Government objected to that legislation. We then had pre-legislative scrutiny on the EFRA Committee. It was clearly not the sort of legislation that had to go through pre-legislative scrutiny—it was a very simple Bill. The argument now being used is that, because it has taken so long and we are about to adjourn for the summer recess, it is important that this Bill goes through with very little scrutiny and without any amendments—that it should just be raced through.

If there has been a delay, that is the Government’s fault. That cannot be used as a reason not to try to explore some broader issues, particularly my hon. Friend’s suggestion that we should look at introducing a more severe penalty for those who have filmed themselves indulging in such cruelty, which betrays the particular mindset of the individuals involved. I hope that we can have a fully fleshed out discussion in Committee of the issues involved, but I am very keen to see this Bill on the statute book as soon as possible.

Possibly one of the reasons why the Bill went to pre-legislative scrutiny in the EFRA Committee is that it was at the time paired with the sentience issue. Again, that was a very short Bill; there was one paragraph on sentience. As my hon. Friend Sue Hayman said, I have introduced a ten-minute rule Bill on sentience. When the Minister appeared in front of the Select Committee, he said that the Government were looking for a suitable vehicle to bring the sentience proposal forward. As Sir David Amess said, there has been so much time in which we could have done so. Yesterday, when I went into the Division Lobby to vote, I found myself not quite remembering what to do, because it had been so long since I had done it. I stood there looking at the Division Clerk and thought, “Oh yes, I am meant to give them my name!”

We have not been dealing with legislation and voting. Most of this type of legislative stuff could be dealt with in one day, yet the Government have almost had to be dragged kicking and screaming to bring forward measures such those on as wild animals in circuses, which took eight years to get to this place and is pretty much uncontroversial, as is this Bill. I do not see why that took so long. Finn’s law is great, but that process went on for quite a long time, as did the legislation on third-party puppy sales and CCTV in slaughterhouses. If we did nothing else but simple animal welfare measures, as the hon. Member for Southend West said, we could come up with a whole list of them to keep us occupied while we were waiting for the Brexit impasse to be resolved. To buy off a rebellion on the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, this House was promised in late November or early December 2017 that sentience would be legislated for before we left the EU. If the amendment in question had been pushed to the vote, I think the Government would have been in serious difficulties. They are therefore under a moral responsibility to bring forward this legislation as soon as possible.

The debate so far has been mostly about dogs and domestic animals; there has not been much discussion of farm animals. I get quite impatient when I hear it so often stated that we are a nation of animal lovers. That seems to show a degree of complacency and self-congratulation, because there have been absolutely horrific exposés by undercover investigations of what is going on, even in high-welfare farms. For example, Animal Equality brought a case to court fairly recently after it had gone undercover and filmed workers at Fir Tree farm in Lincolnshire kicking pigs in the face, jabbing them with pitchforks and slamming gates on their heads. At the beginning of this year, they received an eight-week suspended sentence and 100 hours’ community service. There does seem to be a bit of disconnect. Pigs are very intelligent animals. I can see why people perhaps feel more empathetic about cruelty to pets because there is a direct relationship, but if people are going to eat meat, we have a duty to respect the animals in the food chain. Those people should certainly have had much longer sentences, and it should not have been left to an organisation such as Animal Equality to do undercover investigations to reveal the case.

Animal Equality has also just revealed footage from a chicken farm that supplies Nando’s, Lidl and Asda—it is very much part of our mainstream food chain. The chickens were kicked and abused on the farm. They were stepped on, which broke their necks. Again, this was a red tractor farm. Whenever those responsible for the red tractor scheme are put on the spot, they say that it is a one-off, and the reason why animal welfare groups such as Viva! or Animal Equality went into those farms is that rumours had been heard about them, and these are the rogue guys; they are not indicative of what is happening across the piece. However, if we look at what Viva! discovered about the way that pigs were being treated on Hogwood farm, it seems that this is just the tip of the iceberg. If these are the higher welfare farms, what is going on at the farms that do not have a red tractor mark? We need to do far more to investigate standards on our farms and in slaughterhouses. I know that there is now CCTV in slaughterhouses, but there have been horrific stories.

I am keen for the Bill to go forward, and I do not want to delay it, but there is scope to look at some amendments. The Minister has said that there might be a larger piece of animal welfare legislation, or it might be tied into the environment Bill or the agriculture Bill—I have heard lots of different rumours about what might be coming forward. I urge him to look at issues such as live exports. I do not understand why a ban would only be on live exports for slaughter and not fattening. I do not see the difference, because the cruelty is in the journey that the animals have to take.

We need to look at vivisection. The number of animal experiments continues to rise. I am not opposed to genuine scientific advances or genetic research, but so many of these experiments are totally unnecessary. If we leave the EU and its chemicals testing regime, we could find that we are doing far more duplicate animal experiments, and we need to be more serious about reducing those numbers.

The final point that I want to make is about shooting. We heard recently, as a result of inquiries that I made with the League Against Cruel Sports, that 27 million game birds are being imported into the UK to be shot for so-called sport each year. They are raised on factory farms in France, Spain, Portugal and Poland with standards that we would not accept. Regardless of what we think about shooting birds for sport, we should be challenging the likes of Eurotunnel for bringing in so many of these birds to facilitate a very cruel pastime. We certainly ought to be looking at the conditions in which the animals are transported. If we are going to have a shooting industry, I do not see why we cannot insist that either the birds are raised in this country or eggs are imported, rather than live animals.

There is a lot more to do. I welcome the Bill, and I am hoping to serve on the Bill Committee. I hope that we can get it passed into law before too long. Once the Minister has got this out the way, there are many other things on his to-do list to turn to.