My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. I am delighted to be able to sponsor this Bill as it passes through your Lordships’ House. I pay tribute to my honourable friend in the other place, Chris Loder, who has successfully steered the Bill through all its stages there—no easy task.
The Bill realises an important commitment from the Government on animal welfare, assists the courts in their essential work and helps to keep this country at the forefront of the care and protection of animals. I also mention Anna Turley, who is no longer an MP but introduced an earlier version of this Bill during her time in the other place.
Every animal deserves to live a dignified life and we should act conscientiously, while acknowledging that this is an emotive subject, to ensure that this is the case. We have an obligation to provide for the welfare needs of animals we have control over, which should be safe in our care, whether they be as pets or farm animals or in other captive environments.
Like many Members in the other place and in your Lordships’ House, we have pets that have been a constant companion to us, particularly in these rather testing Covid times. My own rescue hound was provided by a local gentleman, Roger Warren, who rescued our saluki/whippet cross as a puppy in a pitiful condition and nursed her back to health. Anyone seeing her today would not realise her terrible past. Mr Warren, who has rescued many dogs and many other animals, told me about the incredible cruelty that he has seen, including greyhounds that have had their paws smashed with a hammer.
Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 the maximum penalty for animal cruelty offences is six months’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. The Bill would increase the maximum sentence for those convicted of the worst animal cruelty offences in England and Wales from six months to five years. It is a straightforward but much-needed measure that would ensure that those who harm an animal by, for example, causing unnecessary suffering, mutilation or poisoning face the full force of the law. That would include cases of systematic cruelty such as the deliberate, premeditated and sadistic behaviour of ruthless individuals and gangs who use dogfighting to fuel organised crime. The Bill would mean that English and Welsh courts had sentences at their disposal commensurate to the most serious cases so that the punishment could fit the crime. That would send a clear signal that there is no place for animal cruelty in this country.
My association with the Bill began when I was a special adviser to the then Prime Minister, Theresa May. I convened and chaired a round table on the subject, hearing the views of a coalition of animal welfare organisations such as the League Against Cruel Sports; the RSPCA; Battersea Dogs and Cats; the Humane Society International; Compassion in World Farming; IFAW; Cats Protection; Dogs Trust; A-Law, the UK Centre for UK Law; Blue Cross; and World Horse Welfare. I commend their effectiveness in supporting the Bill and the increased maximum penalties that it would provide. I particularly thank Andy Knott, the CEO of the League Against Cruel Sports, for his constructive and pragmatic approach to the Bill and for undertaking a lot of the heavy lifting with coalition members.
I want to recognise the many individual members of the public who collectively fill our postbags and sign e-petitions each year concerning animal welfare issues. I particularly want to mention the pupils of Redhill Preparatory School in Haverfordwest, who recently wrote many individual letters to me. Their deputy head teacher, Vicky Brown, should be congratulated on getting her pupils involved in the democratic process.
The legal and moral imperative that this important Bill addresses and the support it has already received are why I regard it as a privilege to be able to sponsor its passage through this House. The Bill would amend Section 32 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which currently sets out a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine for the more serious “prevention of harm” offences.
The current sentence is much lower than the European average for animal welfare offences, which is two years, and many countries have much higher maximum penalties. Northern Ireland has a maximum penalty for animal cruelty offences of five years’ imprisonment, set in August 2016, and the Scottish Parliament passed a Bill in June 2020 to implement a five-year penalty within Scotland. I am pleased to say that this Bill would ensure that England and Wales also had one of the toughest punishments in the world, bringing us into line with the penalties available in other countries including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, India and Latvia, which all have a maximum of five years’ imprisonment.
There have been several cases where very serious cruelty had been inflicted on animals and, in sentencing, the judges were clear that they would have imposed a higher penalty or a custodial sentence had the Animal Welfare Act made provision for that. A man was convicted of causing unnecessary suffering to his cat. He committed several appalling acts including burning the cat, attempting to flush her down the toilet, attempting to strangle her and throwing her against a wall. He was sentenced to 18 weeks’ custody suspended for two years, banned from keeping pets for 10 years and ordered to pay £440 in costs. In another example a man deliberately set his dog on a pet cat, which was mauled to death. He was jailed for 18 weeks after admitting causing cruelty and banned from keeping animals for life. The comments of the judiciary in these examples are telling. In the first case the magistrate said that the offender was “extremely dangerous” and that she would have liked to have put him in prison for as long as she could. In the second case the chairman of the Bench said when passing sentence that
“we would if we were actually permitted to do so have imposed a far greater custodial sentence.”
Aside from the cases tried in our courts every year, animal welfare organisations complete important work in rescuing and rehoming animals. In many cases those animals have arrived at their door because the owners have suffered a change in circumstances, but others have been rescued from the most appalling acts of violence. Some of the animals that welfare organisations receive must then be nursed back to health over lengthy periods. Providing that care costs rehoming centres, often established on a not-for-profit basis, many thousands of pounds in veterinary bills. We need to strongly discourage people from committing such acts in the first place.
The Animal Welfare Act is very effective legislation under which some 800 people are successfully prosecuted every year for animal cruelty. In that respect the Act is serving our animals well but, as with any law, we need to revise it when there are improvements to be made, and that includes revising its penalties. As a result, and to address the previously mentioned issues of dogfighting, comments from the judiciary and the cost to animal welfare organisations, I and many others, including the Government, believe it is high time that animals were offered more robust protections. Offenders should face tougher sentences for causing harm to animals.
I know that many noble Lords have spoken up for animal welfare over the years, and I am sure they will do so again. I hope that with their assistance we can see this Bill reach the statute book and provide the protection that animals in our care or under our control deserve. This will secure an improvement not just to animal welfare but to society through a reduction in the instances of animal cruelty and criminality.
The Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill is a simple one amounting to just two clauses. Clause 1 is the focus of the Bill. It outlines the mode of trial and maximum penalty for certain animal welfare offences. As I have previously outlined, under the Animal Welfare Act the maximum penalty is currently six months and/or an unlimited fine. Clause 1 would change the maximum custodial sentence available for the five key offences defined as “prevention of harm”. Under Clause 1 the existing maximum penalty of six months would still apply in cases where offenders were summarily convicted. However, where offenders were convicted at a trial heard at the Crown Court, they might now receive a higher penalty of up to five years imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine.
Clause 2 provides for the Bill to extend to England and Wales, arrangements for its commencement and the Short Title. Animal welfare is a fully devolved matter but in the case of this Bill the Welsh Government have confirmed that the new maximum penalty should also apply in Wales, and the Bill is drafted on that basis. The Bill is set to come into force after two months if it receives Royal Assent. The revised maximum penalties are not retrospective so would not apply to offences committed before the Bill came into force.
The public care passionately about the welfare of animals. Making sure that the way in which we treat animals reflects who we are as a nation is a priority for the people, illustrated by the great lengths to which they go in petitioning the Government on the subject. The Bill would be a significant step towards ensuring that our courts had the appropriate tools to respond to those who inflict deliberate suffering on innocent animals.
The current maximum penalty is too low and has been so for too long. Increasing it would be a relatively simple step that would align England and Wales with Scotland and Northern Ireland. While we are a world leader on many animal welfare issues, it is important to implement this measure, which would put our sentencing regime on a par with other leading nations. The Bill would let animal abusers know that they could not escape serious penalties where serious acts of animal cruelty were committed. For those who undertake illegal activities such as organised dogfighting and systematic cruelty towards animals, it is only right that sentences be in years rather than months.
To sum up, the Bill is of great importance to the House, to the animal welfare community and to the public. We need to increase the maximum penalty so that it offers appropriate custodial sentences and provides a strong deterrent in line with the maximum penalties for other criminal offences. I beg to move.
My Lords, I declare my interests as president of the Horse Trust and a long-standing member of the RSPCA. I strongly support the Bill and express my gratitude both to Mr Chris Loder in the other place and to the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, for their sponsorship of it. It is commendably and unusually short. It has a clear purpose and a single target, and I hope that attempts are not made to bolt on extras that might put it in jeopardy through timing.
The underlying purposes of sentencing are said to be punishment, deterrence and reform. Deliberate, calculated, sadistic behaviour involving the inflicting of unnecessary suffering on an animal is deeply repellent, and I see some of those results through the Horse Trust. It appears in only a very small number of cases in the panoply of animal cruelty cases that I am afraid are likely to come within the ambit of the maximum penalties, but it has a place on the statute book.
The majority of animal welfare cases are the result not of sadists but of ignorance, greed or the limited or diminished mental or physical capacity of the owner, of changed personal circumstances, and even of misplaced sentimentality, which so often leads to neglect, mistreatment and abandonment. In reality, education has a huge role to play in reducing animal suffering, probably more than any prison sentence.
For example, it is clear that a large number of people have chosen to get a dog during lockdown and some, as I know, to get a horse because they have the time. The prices for both those animals have risen to absurdly high levels—I heard of £2,000 for a Jack Russell puppy—providing an incentive for future irresponsible breeding and, too often, for deformed dogs bred specifically with facial defects to look appealing, but consequently unable to breathe properly. People need to know all this, and to remember that a dog is for life and not just for lockdown or until it has ceased to entertain the children. The Horse Trust has received a phenomenal number of calls from people wanting to get rid of a horse for which they no longer have time or money. I expect that dog rescue centres can expect to be very busy in the near future.
Lastly, with prosecutions in mind, I would like specifically to praise the current leadership of the RSPCA under its chief executive, Chris Sherwood. They have got that most important of our animal charities back on the right track. Having had an official warning and special measures from the Charity Commission, and after too many years of bad running and shrinking membership, it is now back on track—let go, as it were, by the Charity Commission to carry on doing its superb work, which is done by nobody else. I am very pleased about the decision it made and announced in January: that it will in future hand over its investigations for prosecution to the CPS and not do them itself. After all, that was what the EFRA Committee in the other place recommended four years ago.
Let us hope that once this Bill reaches the statute book, as I very much hope it will soon, it will be needed less and less in the future.
My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, I welcome and support this Bill, which will increase sentencing for animal welfare offences from six months to five years. It has been ably introduced today by the noble Lord, Lord Randall, and I commend him and Chris Loder in the other place for all they have done on this matter.
In January 2017, when I first asked in this House what plans the Government had to increase penalties for animal welfare offences, the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, replied that the Government had no current plans to increase the maximum penalties for those offences. It is thanks to campaigning across parties and in civil society—I pay tribute to the work of the RSPCA, Battersea Dogs & Cats Home and others—that those arguments, already being made again today, have led the Government to reconsider. I thank them for that.
As I say, the case has been made powerfully and I am not going to repeat it. But we are all human and I felt a fair degree of emotion—indeed, abject horror—when hearing of some of the cases which have been making a mockery of our sense of justice. The noble Lord, Lord Randall, mentioned some of them, but the one that really turned my stomach was of a man torturing a hedgehog by cutting off its limbs and covering its face with candle wax. He received just 26 weeks’ imprisonment. It is right that this Bill will introduce an appropriate level of punishment for the crime and that our important principle of justice will be upheld.
There is, however, more we can and should do for those abused and ill-treated animals who survive these appalling cases and are rescued by animal welfare centres and organisations in England and Wales. At present, these organisations rehome those animals, but they have to wait until the court proceedings are completed to do so. In Scotland, they have agreed to introduce a law allowing rehoming after 20 days.
The Minister would be surprised if I did not always ask for yet more to protect animals. I would not dream of prejudicing this important legislation in clearing its final parliamentary hurdles. However, I hope that once the Bill is safely on the statute book, the Government will turn their attention to this matter and introduce legislation to stop the delays, often of months and sometimes years, which prevent abused and ill-treated animals getting a second chance of a loving and permanent home.
My Lords, I first declare an interest as a vice-president of the RSPCA and the president of one of its branches. I am very well aware of that sentence, “Everything has been said, but not everyone has said it”. Suffice it to say that I agree wholeheartedly with the points so ably made by my noble friend Lord Randall in introducing the debate and the various points made by the speakers who preceded me. Therefore, I will turn to one or two other points that are important.
I am glad that the idea of unlimited fines is being carried over into the Bill from the 2006 Act, but I understand that this does not always work very well because the courts are reluctant to impose heavy fines on people who will clearly not be able to pay them. This means that there is a disconnect between the terrible or great crime that has been committed and the amount of the fine that can be incurred. That makes it all the more important that we have proper sentencing for those who engage in the worst of these crimes. I do not want to repeat any of the cases that I have seen; it shocked me to the marrow even to read them, let alone to repeat them in this Chamber.
However, I am concerned about another issue, which does not relate directly to the Bill but is germane: sentencing guidelines. I understand that, if a defendant declares as soon as he practicably can that he is guilty, up to a third of a sentence may be remitted. That may be appropriate in some circumstances, but I suggest to your Lordships that it is far from a good idea when you are dealing with the more serious crimes against animals. I hope that there will be some revision of the sentencing guidelines; although I accept that this is not a matter for us, I want to put that firmly on the record.
Another point that occurs to me is that there is often a connection between people who are cruel to animals and those who are cruel to children and others. From hearing from RSPCA inspectors in the past, I know that they have sometimes looked into an animal cruelty case and found that there were far from happy circumstances for human beings in the same household. Therefore, I hope that, in future, there will be a much stronger connection between the authorities to ensure that, where one is found, something else is looked for—starting with either animals or, say, children. I wish the Bill to be third time lucky and to have a speedy passage on to the statute book.
My Lords, I have owned dogs, cats, horses and, occasionally, sheep. Now, one small dog rules our life. It is an interesting fact that this country is passionate about animals, and animal charities get far more money than children’s charities do. However, the darkest element has been cogently described by the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge.
This is an excellent Bill, which has the huge advantage of being very short. It increases the sentence, which is absolutely necessary, and brings us into line with the other parts of the United Kingdom. However, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, that education is an important factor and something that the Department for Education might perhaps take on board, once this legislation has been passed. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, on bringing forward the Bill, and I also congratulate those who did so in the Commons. I wish it well.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge on picking up this Bill from the other place and presenting it so ably at Second Reading today. This small but important Bill could have no better sponsor. It has a simple purpose: to ensure that the courts have the ability to hand down sentences that fit the crime for those found guilty of cruelty to animals. I expect that we will find ourselves of one mind on this Bill.
I am not a believer that imprisonment is the answer in every case; indeed, it cannot be the solution to preventing all criminal activity or salvaging lives from a life of crime. However, I do believe that this modest measure is very much needed to deter and punish animal abusers and, if noble Lords have any doubt on this score, I ask them to remember the link between abuse of animals and abuse of people, as my noble friend Lady Fookes reminded the House.
I thank the RSPCA, the Dogs Trust and Battersea Dogs and Cats Home among others for their briefings today and over the years. We are all well served by our animal charities and their teams—I know this from being in opposition and in government, where as a Minister in both Defra and the Home Office I was responsible for animal welfare matters. I remember a visit to the RSPCA’s Harmsworth animal hospital in London, when I was a Defra Minister, working on dog control. I remember the dedication of the team there, and how they picked up the pieces of broken animals and put them slowly back together again.
As we have heard, this amendment to the law will bring England and Wales into line with the other nations of the British Isles. Increasing the maximum sentences will act as a deterrent for some and show that the criminal justice system takes these matters seriously. Cruelty to animals is not a party-political issue, and I hope that this House and Parliament will come together to do what is right, not just for animals but for our society as well. The British electorate and public expect nothing less.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, and thank him for introducing this Bill today, along with Chris Loder in the other place. The Bill is narrow, and I appreciate that that is in part because of a desire to avoid further delays in enhancing the sentencing powers available to the courts. I fully support the Bill, which is long overdue in bringing maximum penalties for animal cruelty offences in England and Wales into line with those already in place elsewhere. In Northern Ireland, I am pleased to say, the maximum sentence for animal cruelty offences has been five years since 2016, and the Scottish Parliament has just passed legislation increasing it as well.
It is absolutely imperative that animals are cared for in our society, that those who abuse animals are appropriately punished and that those with a legal responsibility for animal care have the support and resources they need. Recent reports from the RSPCA suggest that cruelty cases have risen during the pandemic, so the legislation is not only timely but hugely important. As a result of this legislation, as has been said, the United Kingdom will have one of the toughest animal cruelty sentencing regimes anywhere in the world, but our ambition should not end with its passage. There is more that we can do to prevent, deter, detect and prosecute crimes against animals. I am delighted that the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland is working at pace to bring forward legislation to introduce Finn’s law in Northern Ireland, which would afford greater protection to service animals injured in the course of their duty.
As well as increased funding for animal welfare services, we should consider the establishment of a register of animal cruelty offenders to avoid repeat harm and take a preventive approach to wrongdoing. I am aware that the creation of such a register is very complex and that data protection, human rights and cost issues would have to be overcome, but we should not run away from the responsibility to exhaust all avenues to make progress in this important area. For instance, it could be limited to banned offenders with appropriate and limited access to relevant agencies.
Like other noble Lords, I believe in raising awareness and educating people about responsible ownership and the value of animals. That would go a long way to rooting out the causes of these evil crimes of animal cruelty. There is also room for greater UK-wide co-operation and efforts to tackle cruelty. A national charter, for instance, could ensure a joined-up and cohesive approach to initiatives being taken forward in each of our countries.
I wish this Bill well in what I hope is a speedy passage through the House.
I first declare my interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
I am pleased to speak in support of this Bill. I thank Chris Loder and my noble friend Lord Randall for their welcome endeavours on it. The current maximum sentence in England and Wales is out of step with that for other crimes and in other countries. Battersea highlights that offences such as fly-tipping or theft can carry penalties of five years in prison, yet only six months is available to the courts for those convicted of running brutal dog-fighting rings or torturing animals.
Battersea research also showed that courts in England and Wales are already issuing the maximum sentence in many cases, indicating that a higher sentencing ceiling is needed. As we have heard, other countries have a tougher approach. In 2017, Battersea surveyed 100 jurisdictions globally, including the whole of Europe, and found England and Wales the most lenient, with a six-month maximum custodial penalty for the most serious cases. None had a lower maximum penalty.
In 2018, 862 people were found guilty of animal cruelty in England and Wales. Nearly a third received a custodial sentence and some received the maximum term of six months in prison, the average being 3.6 months. RSPCA prosecution figures show that this is an ongoing problem. In the two years from 2016 to 2018, the number of prosecutions secured in the magistrates’ courts rose by just over 200 to 1,678.
Sadly, and as we have heard, there is also a strong link between acts of violence against animals and acts of violence against people, both of which, tragically, are reported to have increased during the Covid-19 pandemic. A Battersea study revealed that women in domestic violence shelters were nearly 11 times more likely to report that their partner had previously harmed or killed pets, while children are at risk of neglect or abuse in 83% of families with a history of animal abuse. I agree strongly with the points made in this area by my noble friend Lady Fookes.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight once again on the importance of our relationships with our pets. For many of us, owning a dog or cat has helped get us through the most challenging of times in the past year, and they continue to provide us with joy and companionship. It is therefore only right that we do what we can in return to help protect our animals now and in the future. If this Bill is passed, I would welcome further clarity in sentencing guidelines to enable the courts to establish clearly which offences would merit the tough penalties available and those which may not require a custodial sentence. This would also usefully establish a uniform approach to sentencing in animal welfare cases.
I thank Battersea and other animal charities for all the wonderful work they do for all our animals. This legislation is supported by all major political parties and definitely by the public. We must not let this opportunity to introduce such an important change fall again before the end of the current parliamentary term.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Randall, and Chris Loder for bringing this Bill so speedily and efficiently to this House. This is an important, short piece of legislation which we must try to get through. I agree wholeheartedly with everything that has been said, so I will try not to repeat it.
I think we have a very weird attitude to animals in this country. When I was editor of the Daily Express, we ran a piece about a man who had no job, and because he had no job, he could not feed his dog. Within about 24 hours, more than £32,000 was raised to feed the dog but, unfortunately, the man was not offered a job. It seemed to tell us a lot about our rather skewed attitude to animals. In fact, Battersea states that 27 public consultations have found that 70% of people support these proposals, together with tougher prison sentences, so it seems to be very late in the day not to be clamping down on people who treat animals cruelly.
As a couple of Peers have already mentioned, animal cruelty offenders are much more likely to be people offenders. In fact, they are five more likely to have a violent crime record. Currently, an act of fly tipping or theft is actually sentenced with greater severity than being cruel to animals. I was listening to a programme on Radio 4 the other day about theft on country farms. I heard about a sheepdog in Norfolk who had been crucified on a barn wall and left as a message for the owner, whose tractor was also taken. I do not know about other noble Lords, but it seems to me that the act against the sheepdog was a great deal worse than the theft of the tractor, yet, under the law at the moment, this would be reversed.
The current maximum sentence does not in any way fit the violence of the crime. I have talked to people who work and in animal shelters such as Battersea—I have had a Battersea dog who lived to be almost 20 and was one of my greatest companions. They put together animals such as Chester, a one year-old Saluki found by the side of the road with appalling injuries. It took 44 days for him to recover.
As other noble Lords have mentioned, during Covid we have become very fond of our pets, and our pets have been very valuable to us. It is well worth recording that pet owners make 15% fewer visits to their doctor every year: pet ownership therefore saves the NHS an astonishing £2.45 billion a year. We should respect our animals, and children should be taught that teasing animals in any way is quite incompatible with being a decent and upright human being. I welcome the Bill and look forward to its speedy passage.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge on introducing this Bill today. It is absolutely right that the courts should be able to impose sentences in line with what the public rightly have come to expect in the worst cases of cruelty towards animals. As pointed out by the RSPCA, there is something wrong with the present law when, under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, a person can go to prison for three years if his dog injures a guide dog, but for only six months for beating his dog to death.
As a result of the commitment and years of hard work put in by my right honourable friend Sir Oliver Heald, Finn’s law, the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Act, was passed in 2019. As I live very near Buntingford, where Finn the retired police dog and his master, PC Dave Wardell, live, Sir Oliver asked me to sponsor that Bill when it came before your Lordships’ House. Finn had been seriously injured in the course of arresting a miscreant in Stevenage. Noble Lords who were in their place when the Bill was passed on
My right honourable friend had, as part of his original proposals for Finn’s law, included a measure to increase the maximum sentence for serious offences against police dogs and horses and other service animals to five years. At that time, the Government agreed to support his Bill, but without the change in maximum sentence, because it was already their intention to legislate to increase the maximum sentence for all animals, not just service animals.
Last year, instead of introducing a government Bill, they agreed to support my honourable friend Chris Loder’s Private Member’s Bill to achieve the same result. So I am very happy that Finn’s law part 2 is achieved through the passage of this Bill before your Lordships today.
It is also right that the maximum sentences are extended to five years, not just for service animals but for all animals, including domestic animals. As Battersea Dogs and Cats Home has argued, the current six-month maximum sentence available is the lowest in the 100 jurisdictions across four continents that Battersea examined, and there has been overwhelming public support for this change.
Of course, Battersea and other supporters recognise that the maximum sentences will certainly not be appropriate in the majority of cases, and have called for the Government to provide clarity on which offences would merit the tougher available penalties and which may not require a custodial sentence. I strongly agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, said about this. A uniform approach to sentencing policy in animal welfare cases is very necessary, and I ask my noble friend the Minister to confirm that the Government agree with this.
It is to be welcomed that your Lordships’ House has found the time to debate this Bill today, in the expectation that it can become law before the end of this Session of Parliament.
My Lords, when I was a member of the European Parliament, young children from the primary school that I myself attended—Heasandford Primary School—wrote me a letter about this sentencing issue and having a maximum sentence of only six months. Now I am in the House of Lords, I am in a position to offer my support and voice to ensure that this Bill passes speedily to the statute book.
I add to what many other speakers said my own concern that certain offences such as fly-tipping have a sentence of five years, whereas cruelty to animals has only six months. It is very frustrating that we are seeing this still being debated as it has not yet passed into law. This is the third time that is has been attempted, so I hope that we can get this on to the statute book as fast as possible.
To add to what other colleagues have said, make no mistake: with people who abuse animals, there is a link to abusing women and children. We have seen during this difficult and challenging time with coronavirus that this abuse has unfortunately increased. Until we get this law in place, we should send a message to people not just here in the United Kingdom but across the world, where other jurisdictions still need to do much more to increase sentencing to deter people who think they can abuse animals.
Finally, I will just say that this is all about the public; in 2017, 70% of the general public, during a government consultation, expressed their desire to see tougher sentencing. So I thank Chris Loder in the other place and the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, for sponsoring this Bill and I look forward to supporting it.
My Lords, I am very pleased that this admirable Bill has at last found its way to your Lordships’ House, having been several times a victim of the parliamentary timetable in the past few years. I must thank my noble friend Lord Randall for piloting it through your Lordships’ House.
My noble friend Lord Trenchard has reminded us that England currently holds the wooden spoon as practically the only country—certainly in Europe—that does not have a five-year rule for these offences. Northern Ireland and Scotland have introduced five-year maximum prison sentences, which have also been in place in the Republic of Ireland since 2014, and I am very pleased to note that Wales has laid a legislative consent memorandum to enable this Bill to apply in Wales.
My noble friend Lord Randall highlighted the many reports of frustration among magistrates and judges in England that they are restricted to imposing the current maximum of six months, and my noble friend Lady Eaton pointed out that there are a large number of maximum sentences being handed down at this lower level. The current maximum applies to the most brutal crimes, such as running dogfighting rings and torturing animals. As other noble Lords have pointed out, it compares with the iconic maximum sentence for fly-tipping, which is five years.
Your Lordships will be aware of the disturbing increase of dog thefts during the current lockdown. More people have relied on the companionship of dogs, and their price has gone up very sharply. I suggest that the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, understates the crisis; a cocker spaniel puppy can now easily fetch £3,000, and this has naturally attracted the attention of dog thieves. Some stolen dogs finish up in good homes, but many most certainly do not, and the recent discovery of a large number of dogs on a Travellers’ site in Suffolk is an illustration of the extent of the problem.
Several noble Lords emphasised the connection between acts of violence against animals and violence against people. I am indebted, as many of your Lordships are, to the excellent briefing from the Battersea Dogs & Cats Home study—dogs and cats indeed; I understand there are plans for the chipping of dogs to be extended to cats, as there has also been an upsurge in cat theft during lockdown. I should be grateful if the Minister could update us on any progress made on this proposal.
In short, this is an admirable Bill which has cross-party support and will be welcomed by the general public. I trust your Lordships will hasten its progress towards the statute book.
My Lords, I welcome this Bill and pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, for introducing it in this place, to Chris Loder MP for piloting it through the Commons and to MPs and Peers across all parties who have campaigned for it over a long period. Increasing the maximum sentence to five years has been a long-standing policy of the Liberal Democrats, so I am delighted to support the Bill.
We are all aware of the appalling cases of cruelty to animals which are from time to time reported in the media, but they are very much the tip of the iceberg. A huge number of acts of cruelty take place every year which never reach the public or the courts. Despite being a nation of animal lovers, there is a small minority who have no compunction in inflicting terrible suffering on animals.
The judiciary has been clear that it lacks the powers it needs to impose appropriate sentences for the most serious of these crimes that come before them. This Bill will deal with that problem, and that is welcome, but we should not be under any illusion that it is some sort of panacea. The contrast between the five-year maximum for fly-tipping and the current six-month maximum for animal cruelty has been drawn. As we know, fly-tipping continues to happen.
In introducing the Bill in the other place, Chris Loder referred to the vast number of cases of cruelty which are reported to the RSPCA and the fact that just 100 were prosecuted. He specifically raised the case of a man who had recently been convicted of burning his cat in a hot oven, before attempting to flush her down the toilet, strangling her and then throwing her against a wall. He received an 18-week suspended sentence, was banned from owning a pet for 10 years and was ordered to pay just £440 in costs.
Both these points highlight the problems that this Bill cannot deal with: the lack of resources for enforcement and the fact that sentencing guidelines need to be reviewed as well. Even today, some in the judiciary are failing to use the powers they already have.
The Bill is a welcome and important step, and I am pleased to support it. I very much hope that it will prove third time lucky and pass through this House rapidly. But there is still much to be done. Without adequate resources for enforcement, a review of sentencing guidelines and effective means to prevent people who have inflicted cruelty on animals from acquiring animals in future, the welfare of animals will continue to suffer.
My Lords, this Bill is obviously necessary to tackle animal cruelty and to ensure that humans who harm animals are properly punished. I usually hesitate to advocate longer custodial sentences, as we already have too many prisons with too many inmates, sometimes for minor crimes, because of poor legislation. However, although I would prefer better funding for groups of police to tackle this crime and bigger fines to make it less attractive, in this case it is clear that there has to be a strong consequence for cruelty to animals.
I heartily congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, and Chris Loder in the other place on bringing this as a Private Member’s Bill. It is long overdue. The Government first proposed this legislation in 2017, along with protections for animal sentience, but then they dropped the animal sentience bit. It was June 2019 before the Government brought in this Bill, but with all their shenanigans of shutting down Parliament and then using the Queen’s Speech as a party-political broadcast before holding a general election, the Bill fell twice in as many months. Now, with only a few weeks left of the fourth Parliament since the Government first promised this legislation, we are either going to have to rush the Bill through, pass a carry-over Motion or lose the Bill yet again.
I hope that the Minister will explain why the Government have delayed the Bill for so long—just like the Environment Bill, which is still nowhere to be seen. These important pieces of legislation, both designed to protect animals, the natural world and our environment, have been delayed again and again. I feel that it shows where the Government’s priorities lie when we compare it to the speed and quantity of nasty, damaging Bills like the “spy cops” Bill and the overseas operations Bill, which are rushed through at a moment’s notice.
I really would like the Government to fulfil their promises on animals and animal sentience. I hope that the Minister will pass on to his ministerial colleagues the strong feelings of your Lordships’ House on this issue and the fact that we would like to see this Bill on the statute book as fast as possible. I am staggered—I am sure that the Queen is getting fed up with reading out the same bits of legislation again and again, so let us do it quickly and do it well.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge on introducing this very important piece of legislation. It is a two-clause Bill, but a worthy one. I hope that it gets on to the statute book quickly.
I think the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, put her finger on the key issue: education for pet owners. We have seen and witnessed far too many situations where owners have behaved irresponsibly for various reasons, but one of the main reasons is a lack of knowledge. The consequences for animals and the way that their pets have attacked and destroyed other animals, such as sheep, is a cause for great concern. I think that concern will increase as we move out of the pandemic, because—as other noble Lords have rightly said—a number of dogs and cats have been purchased. When life returns to normal, I think that a lot of these animals will be treated badly and not be supervised in the way that they should. That is a concern.
The RSPCA did research into how long dogs should be left alone for, and 20% of dog owners got the figure wrong. SongBird Survival has done a huge amount of research with Exeter University into how cats behave; owners could do a lot to prevent the destruction of songbirds and the way cats behave by simple measures, using a little common sense and some education.
The noble Lord who just spoke was absolutely right to mention that this is not in itself an answer to the problem; there are other measures. I hope my noble friend is ensuring that the best possible measures are available to the judiciary and the judiciary use them. One measure that should be used, mentioned by my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge, is that any pet owner who treats that pet badly, or whose pet behaves badly, should not be allowed to own a pet in the future. That would be a deterrent but, again, it needs enforcement. I hope my noble friend will review that situation, particularly as the Agriculture Act we just passed encourages a great deal more access to the countryside.
My Lords, I very much welcome the Bill, which brings UK sentencing in line with current law in Scotland and Northern Ireland and other comparable countries, better reflects the nature of welfare offences in comparison with other offences and, because there is a strong link between violence against animals and violence against people, may help reduce human abuse as well as animal abuse.
Apart from strongly supporting the Bill, the main point I want to make is to emphasise that legislation is but part of improving standards and enforcement is an important second part. We have a whole raft of excellent animal welfare legislation in the UK but, sadly, there is a marked deficiency in the enforcement of that legislation, as the noble Lord, Lord Oates, mentioned.
The most serious deficit is the fact that no one state organisation has statutory responsibility for animal welfare. Local authorities have the power to appoint inspectors, but this is discretionary and not a legal duty. I urge the Government to consider making the enforcement of animal welfare legislation the statutory responsibility of local authorities and to provide appropriate resources for that purpose.
One of the costs of enforcing the Animal Welfare Act is that dogs seized under the Act must be kept at local authorities’ expense. An unwelcome consequence of the current Bill might be that offences come to court even more slowly than currently. This would have negative welfare and financial consequences, as the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, mentioned. Can the Minister say what consideration has been given to this issue?
The inadequacies of current enforcement are allowing, among other things, the gross abuse of the pet travel scheme and the shortage of UK-sourced puppies has encouraged major criminal involvement in large-scale puppy and dog smuggling, with attendant welfare consequences. Another aspect of dog smuggling is that, if illegal importation is detected but no offence under the Animal Welfare Act can be proved, I understand that the maximum sentence is likely to be no more than 12 months under the rabies importation order; thus the increased sentence that the Bill would allow, and which we all welcome, would not apply in those cases. Is this anomaly being addressed?
A final concern with regard to livestock is in the light of the fact that, following Brexit and with the phasing out of the basic payment scheme, APHA farm inspections to ensure cross-compliance will cease. Such inspections were an opportunity for inspectors to review the welfare of livestock on inspected premises. What plans are there to ensure that, in future, there are appropriate inspections to check welfare standards on farms?
That said, in summary, I very much welcome the Bill and wish it a speedy passage.
My Lords, I support this Bill. Before I go any further, I should declare an interest in that I have two Jack Russells. Biggleswade is where we live and our senior Jack Russell is called Biggles after the books of Captain WE Johns, which I read as a young man. He should be in the basket behind me but it was pointed out that he might object to certain contributions from your Lordships and bark, so he is outside in the sunshine.
The Bill is overdue. I wish it a smooth passage. I want to say a sincere thank you to my noble friend Lord Randall. I do not know whether everybody who is taking part in this debate, either from the Chamber or from home, has ever taken a Private Member’s Bill through the House. I have taken through one that I started—to help the mutual movement—and a couple of others that started in the other place. It takes a lot of time and effort, however it is done. I really do thank my noble friend. Without the effort that he has put in, we would not be making the progress that we are making today.
However, it is disappointing—I hope my noble friend on the Front Bench will take note of this—that this is not the first time that we in England and Wales, particularly in England, are out of step and playing catch-up with the other home nations on a small but important area of legislation. I wonder whether, because of the devolved nations being more active nowadays, we as the Government at the centre should not take a closer look at the minor Bills being promoted in other areas to see whether they are relevant to England and Wales.
I thank Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, which does a superb job. I remember visiting it when I was a councillor in the London Borough of Islington. The case histories that it has sent us are indeed harrowing and deeply worrying. It makes me wonder whether the time has come to review the Dangerous Dogs Act; that is not for this afternoon, obviously, but it is worth putting it on the record. I also hope that the fact that your Lordships’ House is dealing with the Bill expeditiously will reassure professionals such as those as Battersea.
Finally, I want to make two points. First, the noble Lord, Lord Trees, is right that law enforcement needs to be looked at. Secondly, I say again to the Whip on duty that, if necessary, I am prepared to sit on Friday
My Lords, I welcome the Bill. It is a delight to follow the noble Lord, Lord Naseby. I met him in Durham a couple of years ago. To be clear, he was not visiting the prison; he was visiting his daughter at the university. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, and the Bill’s sponsors in the other place.
I will be brief because a lot of what I was going to say has been said. Public support for increasing sentences for those who abuse defenceless animals stands at more than 70%. It is unbelievable that arranging dogfighting and torturing animals attracts a maximum of only six months in prison whereas, as has been said, serious litterers can get a maximum of five years. As a police officer investigating violent crime over 35 years, I came across a connection between people who tortured animals in their early lives and those who went on to be violent against their fellow human beings later; this was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, and the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, among others.
A classic example of this was Ian Brady in 1963. He was notorious for his involvement, with Myra Hindley, in the torture and murder of children in the infamous Moors murders. His early childhood was plagued with examples of torturing domestic animals; of course, we saw the tragic result. Indeed, animal cruelty offenders are five times more likely to have a violent criminal record. As has been mentioned, there is also a correlation between animal cruelty and domestic violence, which has increased during the pandemic. When examined by Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, we fared badly, with the lowest penalty out of 100 jurisdictions across four continents.
I have said enough. I commend the Bill to the House.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge and Chris Loder MP in another place for their sponsorship of this clear piece of legislation. I declare my interest as a guide dog owner. In 2013, I had the privilege not only of joining your Lordships’ House but of bringing in my then guide dog Lottie as the first guide dog ever in the history of the House of Lords.
I give this Bill my full-throated support. It is neither a dog’s dinner nor a pig’s breakfast but clear, concise and effective, if given effect. It is the natural follow-on to Finn’s law, which was so skilfully steered through your Lordships’ House by my noble friend Lord Trenchard.
I ask the Minister about education. What part does animal welfare play in the citizenship agenda? Will he meet with DfE colleagues to see what more can be done to have animal welfare in schools and animals visiting, for the difference that this can make? I also ask if he will be tempted out of his ministerial kennel to say whether there may be an animal welfare Bill coming through your Lordships’ House sometime soon, in the next Session.
Other noble Lords have commented on some of the adverse impacts of lockdown on animals and pets. I agree that one of the long negative effects of lockdown will be pets abandoned, abused and harmed. I ask the Minister what the Government will do to ensure that this is covered from a government and ministerial perspective.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary in another place, Victoria Prentis, said that the Government fully support this Bill. Every noble Lord who has spoken fully supports this Bill, as do I, and I know that the Minister fully supports this Bill. I entreat him to use all of his good offices and best endeavours to ensure that it secures its place on the statute book, before the end of this Session. Echoing my noble friend Lord Naseby, if that requires us to sit on
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, for his introduction to this important Bill, and Chris Loder, who steered it through the other place. It has significant implications for animals and those attempting to ensure their safety and well-being. The whole thrust of the Bill is the length of sentences for cruelty to animals. I am grateful to the RSPCA and Blue Cross for the briefings provided.
It is obvious that current legislation is inadequate, with the maximum sentence under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 standing at six months’ imprisonment. This compares to five years in Australia, Canada, India, Latvia, New Zealand and Scotland, and three years in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Romania. Others have referred to this. England has always prided itself on its animal welfare ethos, so it is surprising that it does not have more stringent punishment for those who abuse and cause pain and distress to animals. We are lagging behind.
This Bill makes a change to increase the maximum penalty from six months to five years and so that it could attract an unlimited fine. However, fines have been imposed in the past, but are not a real deterrent, as they often remain unpaid and cruelty continues unabated. Occasionally, harm will occur to an animal because of ignorance or an unintended accident. It is not these offences that the Bill seeks to address. Its purpose is to prevent unnecessary cruelty by acting as a warning to others. Those who engage in deliberate, calculated and sadistic behaviour towards animals can expect to receive the maximum custodial sentence and a heavy fine, and I fully support this.
Our current legislation also can administer a lifetime ban on keeping animals. These disqualification orders are difficult and time-consuming to administer and not often monitored. It is occasionally the case that someone who has been served with a lifetime ban is back in the courts for a similar offence several years later. Perhaps they hope that no one will notice. It is these persistent offenders for whom the extension of the prison sentence may be most appropriate, but if a disqualification order is imposed, it must be properly monitored, recorded and enforced.
Organised dogfighting is currently illegal, but very large sums of money can change hands at one of these events. Fining is not likely to deter the most hardened of these criminals in their sadistic practices, but a hefty prison sentence will not only curtail their freedom but will also curtail their illegal income, as the noble Lord, Lord Randall, said.
While I am grateful to the RSPCA for a list of the sentences handed down for a variety of animal cruelty offences, I regret that I am reluctant to read those harrowing offences out and I commend those who have managed to do so. I cannot imagine what motivates people to cause such appalling suffering, often on very small defenceless animals, as my noble friend Lady Parminter said. Those who take pleasure in such activities are a serious threat to animals and children and are likely to be perpetrators of domestic violence. The noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, and other noble Lords referred to this. Research and surveys indicate that 70% of the public wish action to be taken to curtail the activities of those inflicting animal cruelty in its worse forms. This Bill allows this that happen.
Often an elderly person will keep a cat. It will be their only companion and friend. The bond between the two will enrich the life of the elderly person, providing them with company and a one-way conversation. We as society have a duty to ensure that that pet is safe from harm from those engaged in mindless violence for fun, often drink and drug-fuelled. A fine is no deterrent, but a custodial sentence is a very different matter.
There is an extensive range of sections in the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which start with causing unnecessary suffering and move through the more serious to mutilation and poisoning. It is vital that this Bill should pass and enter the statute book so that adequate protection can be provided for all animals, whether domestic pets, farm livestock or wild animals. All speakers have wished to see this Bill become a statute. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I congratulate Chris Loder in the other place on bringing this Bill forward and thank the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, for sponsoring it in your Lordships’ House, although I regret that it has taken this long to bring this legislation forward considering that it has widespread cross-party support and is supported by the general public.
Personally, I feel a sense of Groundhog Day having first support my friend Anna Turley’s Private Member’s Bill in 2017, which Conservative Whips objected to at Second Reading. There was never really any explanation of why the Government objected at that time. I then spoke in the debate in the other place following the publication of the Defra Select Committee’s excellent report covering maximum sentencing. Then the Government proposed a sentencing and sentience Bill, which came to nothing. In July 2019, I spoke in the other place at the Second Reading of another version of the Bill, when the Minister said it was really important to legislate as quickly as possible. I am sure your Lordships’ House can feel my frustration. For four years, the Government have been saying that this legislation is an important priority, but they have dragged their feet time and time again, yet we know from the rapid passage of the Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Bill that when the Government have a priority they can get legislation on to the statute book very quickly indeed.
I am glad that we are finally in a position where an animal sentencing Bill might actually become law. It is imperative that the Bill should receive Royal Assent and come into force as soon as possible so that our courts can start handing out appropriate sentences to those convicted of inflicting terrible harm on innocent animals. It is absolutely right that we should seek to increase the maximum penalty for animal welfare offences from six months to five years. Britain can be proud of having some of the best animal welfare practices and legislation in the world. As a Labour Member, I am very proud of the landmark Animal Welfare Act, because a Labour Government brought it forward. Now, the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill will build on those foundations.
We support the Bill today, but I will mention some concerns. It is disappointing that there will not be tougher penalties when there are aggravating factors, such as the filming and sharing online of acts of cruelty. The proposals apply only to the Animal Welfare Act and, therefore, do not apply to wild animals in the way that they apply to domesticated animals. Our concern is that this creates a two-tier system. The same sentences should be available for similar or identical crimes, regardless of whether the animal is domesticated or wild. All animals feel pain and all suffer. The people who harm them need to feel the full force of the law, so will the Government look at bringing sentencing for cruelty to wild animals into line with that for domesticated animals?
I will also briefly mention pet theft. Sentences for people who commit it should reflect the distress that they inflict on their victims. Will the Government support a review of the sentencing guidelines to recognise the emotional impact of theft?
A number of noble Lords have drawn attention to the connection between animal cruelty and criminal behaviour. We know that people convicted of animal cruelty are five times more likely to have a violent crime record and that animal abuse is 11 times more likely in domestic violence situations. This legislation will protect not only animals but people. As has been said, the Government should also place a statutory duty on local authorities to enforce the Animal Welfare Act, so that it has proper teeth, and give local authorities adequate resources for enforcement. Can the Minister confirm that sufficient resources will be provided and ensure that disqualification orders on owning animals are properly monitored, recorded and enforced? Will the Government support the introduction of a lifetime ban on owning pets for any person convicted of these offences?
Many have campaigned for this legislation. I will mention a few: the League Against Cruel Sports, the Dogs Trust, Blue Cross, the RSPCA, Battersea Dogs & Cats Home and many members of the public. I commend them for their important work and look forward to the Bill finally becoming law.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Randall, for his sponsorship of this important Bill and the powerful manner in which he made the case. I also thank other noble Lords for their valuable contributions to today’s debate.
The Bill represents a government manifesto commitment to increase sentences for the worst acts of animal cruelty and it has the full support of the Government. It is just one element of the continued action that this Government are undertaking to improve animal welfare. Last year, we prohibited the commercial third-party sale of puppies and kittens in England. We launched an awareness-raising campaign to help to tackle low-welfare and illegal supply of pets. We have taken steps to ban the keeping of primates as pets and we have consulted on the compulsory microchipping of cats—the Government’s response will be published in due course. We have changed the law to require CCTV in slaughterhouses and will introduce measures soon to end excessive journeys for slaughter and fattening. We have also acted to understand the potential short-term animal welfare impacts related to Covid-19 controls by commissioning the Animal Welfare Committee to provide us with its independent advice.
These are just some of the actions that we are taking that build on our previous policies, including the support that we gave to the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Act, otherwise known as Finn’s law, which has been raised by a number of speakers today, including the noble Lord, Lord Dodds of Duncairn, and the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard—it received Royal Assent in April 2019.
As I am sure noble Lords will be aware, this Bill is complementary to Finn’s law. It will strengthen the penalties available where Finn’s law is applied, increasing the protections for our service animals. In short, the Bill extends the maximum penalty for the worst cases of animal cruelty in England and Wales from the current level of six months and/or an unlimited fine to five years’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. The noble Lord, Lord Randall, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, made the point that the Bill introduces one of the highest punishments for animal cruelty in the world. It is simple but vital, as it will allow courts to deliver a more proportionate punishment to those who perpetuate unspeakable cruelty towards animals.
I shall now reply to the important points made by Members of this House. We heard from the noble Lord, Lord Randall, of some truly awful cases of animal cruelty. As he said, in some cases of cruelty the judges involved stated that they would have handed down a higher sentence than six months had the law and guidelines allowed. The noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, mentioned her work as chair of the Horse Trust—I thank her for that—and discussed some of the reasons why people behave appallingly to animals. She, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, all made the case for education of pet owners. Clearly, there is a need for education. Indeed, the Government have engaged in one of their most successful ever communications campaigns, Petfished, to try to help prospective owners of cats, dogs and other animals to ensure that they are not providing custom to unscrupulous dealers or shops.
There is also a place for punishment and deterrents. The time needs to fit the crime, as in various ways the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, all said. For context, it is probably worth saying that other offences that can lead to up to five years in prison include, for example, abstracting electricity, allowing a dog to be dangerously out of control, causing actual bodily harm and fly-tipping. Against such offences, we consider it proportionate for the maximum sentence of animal welfare offences to be set at five years.
A number of noble Lords mentioned the RSPCA. The Government clearly recognise the enormously valuable work that that organisation does to improve the welfare of animals, including the role of prosecuting those who have breached the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Defra officials and those of other government departments are working with the RSPCA on proposed changes to transfer responsibility for prosecuting animal welfare offences to the Crown Prosecution Service. We are determined to ensure that while we work together in this area there is no reduction in the level of protection given to animals whose welfare has been compromised.
The noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, said that the Government previously had no plans to raise the maximum sentence and that this was in a sense something of a U-turn. With respect, that is not the case. We have had plans for some time—indeed, it was one of my first decisions as Minister responsible for animal welfare nearly two years ago to proceed with this proposal. She and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, talked about delays to the Bill. They are right that the Bill has experienced delays, but it is wrong to say that that was due to a change in the Government’s priorities. Events such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the emergency response work required have affected the parliamentary timetable horribly. The Government are fully behind this Bill and always have been.
The noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, mentioned that there is often a connection between cruelty to animals and cruelty to children, a point repeated by the noble Lords, Lord Taylor of Holbeach and Lord Trees, and the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton, who backed up the assertion with some compelling evidence. The noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate, further backed up that assertion by using his long experience in the police force, citing in particular the grim case of Ian Brady. It is clearly right to make that connection.
The noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, and the noble Lord, Lord Oates, asked about sentencing guidelines, along with other noble Lords, and about the courts’ unwillingness to impose the full penalty. The Government have been in contact with the independent Sentencing Council about the change to the maximum penalty. There is an existing sentencing guideline in relation to animal cruelty offences under the Act, which was reviewed and updated by the council in 2017. The council has since confirmed that, when this Bill has passed, it will consider the need to revise the guideline and any revision will involve public consultation.
The noble Lord, Lord Dodds of Duncairn, raised the idea of a register of animal abusers. Persons convicted of animal cruelty or animal abuse are already captured on the police national computer, which provides a searchable single source of locally held operational police information. It brings together data and local intelligence so that every force can see what is known about an individual, including information relating to animal cruelty. The police have said they worry that a publicly available register of animal abusers could facilitate vigilantism, but I think the noble Lord is right to say these problems could be overcome.
The noble Lord, Lord Khan of Burnley, mentioned that he has been lobbied by pupils from his old school. That is wonderful to hear and testament to the importance that the British public attach to the issue of animal cruelty. It was a point also made well by the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate.
The noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, asked which types of offences would be included in the scope of this sentencing. Examples include causing unnecessary suffering to animals, carrying out non-exempted mutilation, docking tails except where permitted, poisoning animals, organising animal fights and so on.
The noble Lord, Lord Oates, made the point that this Bill, valuable though it is, is not a panacea. He is right, of course. It is part of a package of measures we will introduce in the coming weeks and months. He also mentioned the 18 weeks given to a person for engaging in unspeakable acts of cruelty to a cat.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, suggested that the Government had dropped proposals to recognise sentience of animals. With respect, that is not the case. It is worth remembering that it was the UK that pushed for a recognition of animal sentience to be included in Article 13 of the Lisbon treaty back in 2009. Now that we have left the EU and the transition period has finished, we can go much further than we ever could before. We will introduce legislation on animal sentience that will explicitly recognise the welfare of animals as sentient beings as soon as parliamentary time allows, but soon. It is worth saying that our methods and measures will go much further than those of the EU, which apply to a very limited number of EU policy areas and contain endless exemptions, almost to the point of making them meaningless.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, also questioned the Government’s commitment to animal welfare generally. The Government are completely committed to animal welfare. We have taken many steps already. I have mentioned requiring CCTV in all slaughterhouses and implementing one of the world’s toughest ivory bans. We have introduced new welfare standards for pet selling, dog breeding, hiring out horses, animal boarding and exhibiting animals. We have introduced a ban on the commercial third-party sale of puppies and kittens. There are a number of big, important changes in the pipeline. I cannot think of any Government who have done or are doing more on this agenda.
I thank my noble friend Lord Caithness for raising the SongBird Survival project and the research it has done into declining songbird populations. I will bring that work to the attention of my officials so that they can consider whether it can inform our work on animal welfare.
Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, it is an offence to cause any unnecessary suffering to an animal or to fail to take reasonable steps to ensure the needs of an animal are met to the extent required by good practice. The penalty is an unlimited fine, being sent to prison for up to six months or both, but following a conviction for either of these offences the court can also ban the offender from keeping animals, as well as ordering that their animals are removed from them.
The noble Lord, Lord Trees, and a number of other noble Lords talked about the importance of enforcement. Of course, local authorities need the resources to carry out their duties, but every local authority at district level should already have officers able to enforce animal welfare laws.
The noble Lord also raised puppy smuggling, and the Government take this issue very seriously. It is a trade that causes suffering to the smuggled dogs and puts the health of pets and people in the UK at risk. We are working hard to tackle the problem, targeting both the supply and demand of illegally imported dogs. This approach includes enforcement, international engagement, tighter regulation and public communications, as well as collaboration with stakeholders, including the BVA and the Dogs Trust. Now that the transition period has ended, we have the opportunity to manage our own commercial and non-commercial import and pet travel arrangements. The Government will consider our pet travel and import arrangements as part of cracking down on puppy smuggling, in line with our manifesto commitment.
The noble Lord also mentioned the post-EU regime. We are firmly committed to upholding our high animal welfare standards outside the EU. We are co-designing an animal health and welfare pathway with industry to promote the production of healthier, higher-welfare animals at a level beyond compliance with current regulations. We are also looking to replace cross-compliance.
The noble Lord, Lord Naseby, mentioned his own dogs. I too have had the enormous joy and honour of incorporating numerous rescue dogs into my family, including at the moment. However, he mentioned that in England we are out of step with other areas of the UK. The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, made a similar point. I simply say that we are coming into line now on sentencing; it probably goes without saying that in numerous other areas of animal welfare, we are ahead of those other areas of the UK. The plans we have in the pipeline now are more ambitious for animal welfare, as far as I am aware, than those of any Government anywhere.
My noble friend Lord Holmes of Richmond asked whether I would meet Department for Education colleagues to discuss animal welfare in citizenship and education. I can assure him that I will. He also asked whether there will be an animal welfare Bill. I am not at liberty, I am afraid, to make announcements of that sort but I can reassure him that we have a very ambitious pipeline of measures, which we will introduce shortly, on a range of animal welfare issues.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, talked first about sentencing for offences concerning animals in their wild state. Such sentencing is already a separate matter and not in scope of the Animal Welfare Act 2006. I think she made the point herself that that Act applies to vertebrate animals
“under the control of man”, including wild animals under “permanent or temporary” control. That could include, for example, where a wild animal is caught in a trap or snare and it means that all animals under the control of man, whether domesticated or wildlife, will be subject to the new maximum penalty.
On the second issue that the noble Baroness raised, the Government take pet theft very seriously. We are concerned by reports that occurrences are on the rise and reviewing what official data is available to help us understand and establish the true scale of the problem. We are working actively across government right now to explore ways to address the issue that will be effective and have a meaningful impact on the problem. In the meantime, if someone causes an animal to suffer in the course of stealing it they are also liable to prosecution under the Animal Welfare Act 2006—and the increased penalty that this Bill provides may be applied.
I hope I have answered certainly most, if not all, of the questions put to me by noble Lords. I conclude on behalf of the Government by thanking noble Lords for their involvement in today’s debate, in particular my noble friend Lord Randall for his work in guiding the Bill through this House. We are a nation of animal lovers. The Bill reinforces that by answering the strong messages we have seen from parliamentarians, members of the judiciary, animal welfare organisations and the public on strengthening animal cruelty sentencing.
My Lords, I take this opportunity to thank all noble Lords for their considered and important contributions. I sincerely thank the Minister for confirming the Government’s continued support for the Bill. I look forward to guiding it, I hope, through its remaining stages. Lastly, I extend my thanks to all those many outside the House who have supported the Bill, and the many charities and other organisations which have proven to be long-standing and tireless advocates for animals. I mentioned many of them in my earlier remarks but would like to mention, too, Lorraine Platt of the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation. I also sincerely thank my noble friend Lord Shrewsbury. He also put his name forward as a potential sponsor for the Bill but graciously deferred to me. I am only a very junior Member of your Lordships’ House so it is a great privilege to do this. I commend their effectiveness in supporting this Bill and the increased maximum penalties it will provide.
I recognise the many individual members of the public who collectively fill postbags and sign e-petitions each year concerning animal welfare issues. These supporters of animal welfare ensure that discussion is kept current and moving, and that parliamentarians are kept abreast of emerging issues so that they can be raised with the Government. Many of these individuals have been calling for an increase in the maximum penalty for animal cruelty for several years. They will no doubt watch the Bill’s progress keenly.
I also thank the officials in Defra and the Government Whips’ Office who have helped me with details of procedure. Once again, in expressing my gratitude to all noble Lords who have taken part today, and particularly my noble friend the Minister, I sincerely hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading this afternoon.
Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.