I completely agree with the hon. Lady. Indeed, that was a point I made in the Second Reading debate on the Bill that became the 2006 Act, and I will say more about that later.
When we compare ourselves with every other European country, we see that the maximum sentence for cruelty to animals in England and Wales is woeful. A substantial number of European countries have already legislated for a maximum sentence of between two and three years, and in some cases it is up to five years, as the Minister pointed out. Further afield, Canada, Australia and New Zealand already offer a maximum of five years’ imprisonment. Even within the United Kingdom, the maximum sentences in England and Wales pale in comparison with Scotland’s one-year sentencing power and, even more so, with Northern Ireland’s sentencing power of up to five years. I pay tribute to Northern Ireland for having made progress on this before any other devolved Administration or indeed the UK Parliament. I also recognise that Scotland has announced a consultation on proposals to increase sentences to five years, and I hope the Scottish Parliament sees that consultation through and implements stronger powers, so that we can all be in line and be in the same place as a United Kingdom.
There are several reasons why sentences for animal cruelty need to be increased, not the least of which is that public attitudes have no doubt changed in the 10 years since the passing of the 2006 Act. I served on its Bill Committee and I recall the contribution of Bill Wiggin, who led for the shadow team. I remember those sittings clearly. It is now becoming more obvious that the courts, too, want to be given the option to pass tougher sentences for extreme forms of cruelty, with many magistrates and judges asking for an increase in the punishments they have at their disposal. Without this increase in sentencing powers we could also be in the invidious position of facing the prospect of no prison terms for animal cruelty or for fighting with animals being available to the courts, if the Ministry of Justice’s proposal to abolish sentences of six months or less is taken forward and implemented. We need to bear that in mind, and it is another reason why this legislation is so important.
I also want to draw attention to the link with domestic abuse. Blue Cross has pointed out that research clearly suggests a link between animal abuse, domestic abuse and other serious crimes. It found that women in domestic violence shelters were 11 times more likely to report that a partner had hurt or killed pets in the home, as the shadow Secretary of State pointed out. The research also shows a direct correlation between cases of animal abuse and cases of child abuse, with children at risk in 83% of families with a history of animal abuse. It should not surprise any of us to hear of that. We need to do more as a society to join up the investigative powers of social services, the education system and the animal welfare charities, which work so hard to identify cases of animal abuse in homes up and down the country. We could do more to encourage joint working between these different agencies and charities to raise awareness of where the risk lies to animals, children and women, and to people generally.
Before I draw my comments to a conclusion, I want to pay tribute to the Chair of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, of which I am a member, for his leadership of our inquiry—the pre-legislative scrutiny we carried out on the original Bill, which put animal sentience provisions and animal sentencing powers together in the one Bill. It was a very good inquiry, and the recommendation we clearly made was that the two sets of provisions needed to be separated and that we needed to implement the sentencing powers provisions quickly. I am only sorry that it has taken so long to get to this point. A number of Opposition Members have asked the Secretary of State repeatedly when we were finally going to see this Bill on the Floor of the House. We have got here now, so I will leave that there, and just say that I am thankful to be able, at last, to get this on to the statute book.
I hope that the Bill will quickly pass its legislative hurdles and gain Royal Assent later this year, because we need to see these measures enacted. I take the point that there are various other issues that could be addressed in these provisions, such as extending the powers to cover cases involving wild animals, but I think we just need to get on and get this Bill through Parliament and on to the statute book. I know that the animal welfare charities are keen that that should be the case. I have been contacted and asked, “Please keep it simple.” So I understand the debate about other areas of animal welfare policy, but let us just get on with this. It is long overdue and we need to get on with it.