Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:08 pm on 10th July 2019.

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Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 3:08 pm, 10th July 2019

I would like to thank the Members who have made valuable contributions to this important debate. As has been explained, one of the key purposes of the Bill is to ensure that there is a deterrent to animal cruelty by extending the maximum sentence possible. The many examples that have been given, particularly by Anna Turley, will reverberate among those for whom the welfare of animals is close to their heart. I am on to my fourth rescue dog, and it is noticeable that when a dog’s history is not known, they often flinch when they see people of a certain character, which perhaps reflects the horrendous experience they have been through. They often require a lot of extra training and support to recover from that.

I genuinely hope that this legislation, which has good support, will make quick progress under the stewardship of the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend David Rutley. I should point out that the Bill is just one element of the action that the Government intend to take to improve animal welfare. There have been a number of pieces of legislation, and I hope they will soon be joined by this Bill and the Wild Animals in Circuses (No.2) Bill, which is progressing well through the other place.

I now turn to the points made by individual Members. Mr Bailey mentioned feral cats. It is important to state that the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which this Bill is modifying, covers protected animals. In its legal definition, a protected animal is a vertebrate animal of a kind commonly domesticated in the British Isles. This Bill ensures that stray dogs and feral cats will be covered.

Several Members, including my right hon. Friend Sir Greg Knight and my hon. Friend Sir David Amess, have referred to the issues of horse tethering. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 and these new maximum penalties will absolutely apply to horse tethering where that leads to unnecessary suffering. Horse tethering is fully covered in the equine welfare code made under the 2006 Act, which gives clear guidance on appropriate tethering. Anyone not tethering in line with the statutory code risks prosecution under the Act. My hon. Friend the Minister recently hosted a roundtable with local authorities and welfare bodies, and he agreed to share best practice on enforcement on this very specific issue.

The hon. Members for Workington (Sue Hayman) and for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) both mentioned wildlife, as did the hon. Member for Bristol West. The House will be aware that this Bill is specifically about amending the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Other legislation does apply to wildlife, with different levels of penalties that can be imposed, including unlimited fines. However, I am conscious, as they are, that the commitment was specifically made to amend this Act. Who knows whether there will be opportunities for further legislation in a new Session of Parliament, if—dare I say it?—we are ever allowed to prorogue so that we can move on to the next Queen’s Speech. That is a matter for debate on another day.

It is important, as my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Oliver Heald said, that we consider Finn’s law part two, or the sequel, but this Bill does actually provide good strengthening. He referred to other parts of the United Kingdom, but it is important to say that this is a devolved matter and the Government take that seriously. I want to commend him and others for their national campaign and what they have been doing to take the case to other parts of the United Kingdom. As Angela Smith said, Northern Ireland is already at that stage, and we will be joining it.

The hon. Lady mentioned the Lord Chancellor’s proposals about custodial sentences. My right hon. Friend is considering the issues relating to more minor, short-term custodial sentences. He is on record as saying that there is a very strong case to abolish sentences of six months or less altogether, with some closely defined exceptions, but any such proposals do not affect this Bill, which is about increasing the maximum available penalty for animal cruelty to five years. It may apply to the more minor offences under the Animal Welfare Act, but those offences, such as in section 9, do not generally attract a custodial sentence now, and an unlimited fine will continue to apply.

We also have the issue of the sentencing guidelines. The Government have already been in contact with the independent Sentencing Council about the change to the maximum penalty, which we hope Parliament will introduce shortly. There is already an existing sentencing guideline in relation to animal cruelty offences under the Act. It was reviewed and updated by the Sentencing Council as recently as 2017. However, I am pleased to say that the council has confirmed that, once the Bill is passed, it will consider the need to revise the guidelines and any revision would involve a public consultation.