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Welfare of Animals Act

Private Members’ Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 5:45 pm on 26th January 2009.

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Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin 5:45 pm, 26th January 2009

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer will have 10 minutes to propose the motion and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members will have five minutes. One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to make a winding-up speech.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

I beg to move

That this Assembly calls on the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, in light of recent events, to review the welfare of animals legislation as a matter of urgency to ensure that animal-welfare standards are at least equivalent to those in the rest of the United Kingdom.

I rise to address the very serious issue of animal welfare. The Ulster Unionist Party decided to propose the motion for several reasons, the first being that the current legislation lacks the provision for an offence of keeping an animal in conditions that are likely to cause it suffering. At present, action can only be taken if cruelty is apparent and demonstrable.

Several cases involving animal-welfare issues have been highlighted in the press in recent weeks and months.

We have encountered serious cases at Little Acre Open Farm, at Katesbridge and elsewhere. In the community there is great concern that current legislation does not meet the requirements of the Department, the agricultural sector or those who keep animals. We want the legislation tightened up — the current Northern Ireland legislation was enacted in 1972 and needs updating. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s consultation process on the matter ended in December 2006 — more than two years ago.

Since then, there has been ample time to implement new laws, or at least to begin the legislative process, but neither has happened. I understand that the Minister wants new animal-welfare legislation introduced on an all-Ireland basis, or for legislation in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to correspond. I have no problem with the Republic of Ireland’s bringing its legislation up to our standards. That is no reason, however, for delaying an update to Northern Ireland’s legislation. We want our legislation brought into line with the rest of the United Kingdom, and particularly with that in England and Wales, which was improved and updated in 2006.

The SDLP has tabled an amendment to the effect that we should have legislation similar to that in the Republic of Ireland. However, the Republic’s legislation dates back to 1911, which predates partition. At least we have had updates since then. Therefore, there is no point in our trying to equate our legislation to that of the Republic. We must move forward our process. If the Republic wants to catch up, that is up to the people of the Republic, and we will have no objection to their doing so. We must not be hampered by a delay in legislative proposals in the Republic. Its consultation process has just finished, so it may be four years before it brings its legislation up to a standard comparable to ours. We cannot wait on the Republic.

On the occasions when farms are visited and animal-welfare issues not recognised, some blame the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s (DARD) officials. However, it may be the Department that is falling down in that instance. It may be the case that, when they are out testing cattle, that is all that DARD officials are allowed to do. It is hard to understand how departmental officials visited a farm on nine occasions and saw nothing amiss on many of them, despite the evidence of serious animal-welfare problems on the premises. If animals are lying dead or dying, I fail to see how officials can miss it, even if they are there for another purpose. When there, they should be able to address all issues. We must ensure that, when they are out on farms, departmental officials have the authority to ensure the welfare of animals on the premises.

New legislation should produce certain outcomes. We want to ensure that departmental officials and agencies such as the USPCA can remove from premises animals whose welfare is neglected.

We also need to ensure that the legislation allows officials from the Department or from other organisations to take action against conditions likely to cause suffering to animals. Voluntary organisations that deal with animal-welfare issues in the Province do a very good job under very difficult circumstances, and under the poor legislation that already exists.

When someone is found to have caused animal suffering, it is important that the legislation prevents not only that person, but also those premises, from retaining or keeping animals under their control in the future, or certainly for a certain length of time. Otherwise, one can never be sure that a similar situation will not happen again on those premises, perhaps by a family member or by the person who was caught the first time.

Therefore, it is important that we move this process forward. Although I have no difficulty with the Republic of Ireland legislation coming into line with ours, what I really want to see is progress on our own legislation. Can the Minister tell me where is the review of the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 1972 that started many years ago? We need to see progress on that, and we need to see it now.

Photo of P J Bradley P J Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I beg to move the following amendment: At end insert

“and the Republic of Ireland.”

My South Down constituency colleague John McCallister and I are, perhaps, more aware of instances of animal cruelty than any other Member in the Chamber, because over the past few years in South Down, Stephen Philpott, of the USPCA, has been regularly featured on television, regrettably having to speak from a South Down venue. Therefore, we are very familiar with the problems.

I absolutely agree with the content of the motion. The SDLP’s amendment allows for the fact that everything is far from perfect across the water or in the Republic. I concede that the new regulations that were introduced to replace 100-year-old regulations in the United Kingdom are a step in the right direction, and we would benefit if those regulations were replicated here.

I recently listened to a talk given by Professor Patrick Wall, of University College Dublin, to the North of Ireland Veterinary Association at its annual meeting in Magherafelt. In an informative address on animal welfare and health, he spoke about the issues surrounding the November dioxins scare. He praised the legislation in the Republic that allowed for effective traceability and immediate compensation for loss. I know that we are not debating the dioxins case this evening, but it should not be allowed to go unnoticed that there are differences between animal-related regulations that apply North and South.

Currently, the hands of the USPCA are tied. Its officials, as Mr Elliott said, are acting under outdated regulations that deal with only suffering animals. The old saying that prevention is better than cure is very applicable in this debate. It could be claimed that the key word in the motion — and, indeed, in the amendment — is “urgency”. It is the view of the SDLP that the Minister should act immediately to introduce legislation that incorporates the best of the regulations that apply in the United Kingdom and the best that apply in the Republic of Ireland. Calling for the best of both worlds, which we have attempted to do in our amendment, is worthy of support.

We need legislation now that prevents anyone from owning or operating any form of activity that presents conditions likely to cause suffering to animals, whether on farms, in kennels, in stables or in circuses — indeed, everywhere that animals are contained, be it in the open or housed.

I thank Mr Elliott, Mr McCallister and Mr Savage for tabling this motion; it is regrettable that there is a need to do so. However, while cruelty to animals is still the practice of a few, we must do what we can to address it. Finally, it might be worth the Committee for Agriculture and Rural and Development debating the issue again, and to learn from USPCA professionals about the regulations that apply across these islands with a view to creating regulations that will be admired by all.

The amendment offers the opportunity to construct all-embracing regulations that will, hopefully in the not to distant future, eliminate the scourge of animal cruelty.

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea DUP

In March 2006, I called on Angela Smith, as the Northern Ireland Minister with responsibility for this matter, urgently to introduce legislation to protect animals from unnecessary suffering. I said nearly three years ago that we needed a short timetable for the introduction of legislation and that we needed actively to engage on this matter.

We were told at that stage that the Department was undertaking consultation into the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 1972; an Act that is so obsolete that, as the USPCA said, it would allow for the packing of 500 small mammals or birds into the back of a car in strong sun. An offence would not be committed until those animals began to die. Never mind the distress and obvious pain that would be endured, the animals would have to die before action could be taken — all because of loopholes in an Act that is more than 35 years old.

When responsibility was passed to the Northern Ireland Assembly and I was appointed Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, one of the first things that the Committee did was to call on the Minister and her Department to review the legislation to prevent dogs being bred for fighting and to prevent the despicable suffering that those animals and others must endure to line the pockets of their owners illegally.

The Department was called to appear before the Committee on several occasions. We were told that the matter was under review, and we are still being told that nearly two years on. On each visit to the Committee, the Department was asked what it was going to do to protect the animals of Northern Ireland. We were told that the matter was being considered on an all-Ireland basis and that the Department was waiting for a response from its counterparts in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in the Republic of Ireland. The Department waited while more animals suffered, while unscrupulous criminals got richer and greedier, and while everyone else begged for action to be taken.

We are still waiting. We are no further on than we were two years ago when the Committee called for action. We are no further on than we were three years ago when I called on Angela Smith for action. We are no further on while elsewhere in the United Kingdom action has been taken and legislation was introduced nearly four years ago.

The Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development has been consistent in calling for cruelty to animals in Northern Ireland to stop and for punishments to fit the crime, which would act as a real deterrent. The Committee is considering a separate piece of legislation — the diseases of animals Bill — and has recommended that the Department introduce mandatory prison sentences for those who deliberately infect animals; a recommendation that we believe to be very significant. It will be significant because we are providing the Department with the means by which to tackle a real and significant problem with real and significant tools.

I assure Members that the deliberate breeding of dogs for fighting or in sickening conditions is no less significant. I assure the House that when the legislation comes before the Committee, we will be no less stringent in calling for appropriate sentences for those heinous crimes, and that the tools that we provide to the Department or other authorities will be no less significant.

Animals are suffering in Northern Ireland today as we speak, and they are being afforded no protection. Offences are being committed against animals in Northern Ireland today; offences that lead to unspeakable torment, pain and anguish to animals. We cannot accept that.

I repeat the call that I made in 2006, but not as it was made then, as an elected representative to a direct rule Minister; this time, I make the call as an elected representative of the Northern Ireland Assembly and as Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development. We need a short timetable for the introduction of legislation, and we need to engage actively in that matter now. The Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development is more than willing to receive any such legislation that comes before it.

Regarding the amendment, Mr P J Bradley says that we need legislation and we need it now — if we wait for the Irish Republic, unfortunately, we will delay the legislation. We need legislation in Northern Ireland now. Let us look after our own position. I support the motion.

Photo of Pat Doherty Pat Doherty Sinn Féin 6:30 pm, 26th January 2009

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I am in favour of the motion and of the SDLP’s proposed amendment. I am aware that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has been in touch with a wide range of stakeholders, seeking their views on all of the issues concerned and on how those should be brought forward. The Department has been in touch with officials in Britain and in the South of Ireland. In 2006, the Scottish Parliament updated its animal-welfare legislation, and, in 2007, England and Wales updated theirs. Unfortunately, they did not liaise properly, and I would not like to see such creeping partitionism enter into our debate. On the island of Ireland, it is necessary that we liaise with the South and with officials in Britain.

The legislation has to deal with issues such as dogfighting, puppy farms and circus animals.

Photo of Trevor Clarke Trevor Clarke DUP

How can the Member square that circle? A ‘Spotlight’ programme showed that dogs were being imported through the Republic of Ireland. Clearly, there is a large loophole in the Republic of Ireland, whereby dangerous dogs can be brought into Northern Ireland through the back door.

Photo of Pat Doherty Pat Doherty Sinn Féin

I agree with the Member; that is why we have to liaise and consult, in order to close all the loopholes on the island so that that does not continue. I thank the Member for his intervention and for allowing me to highlight that point. As I said, dogfighting must be dealt with.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

I support the motion and want to express my party’s frustration at the delay in bringing forward such legislation. We agree completely with Mr Elliott and Dr McCrea; this should have been done a long time ago. We do not accept the Minister’s view that it is important to move in tandem with the Republic of Ireland. There is no need to do that; we are quite entitled to lead the way. Good legislation that we can copy has been in place in Scotland and England since 2006. If that legislation does not meet all the demands of the organisations concerned, it certainly meets most of them.

The Minister’s desire to wait for the South to move is illogical and extremely frustrating for Members who want to see a legal requirement placed on those people who keep animals to do all that is reasonable to ensure their welfare. We want an end to the situation where keeping an animal in conditions likely to cause suffering is not against the law. Stephen Philpott from the USPCA said that:

“there is no legal redress for a dog forced to survive in a yard littered with its own filth, an animal never groomed, walked or socialised. Only when the sores appear and the vet is ignored, can we involve the PSNI”.

At that stage, it is often too late to save the animal; I am sure that Mr Philpott has seen many such cases.

We want an end to some of the practices that have been mentioned, such as circus animals, dogfighting and hare coursing. I regard hare coursing to be a stain on our national pride and something that should have been outlawed years ago, north and south of the border. It is worth asking: if we are going to move with the Southern authorities, will they take the same attitude toward hare coursing? Will they stand up to the greyhound lobby in the South as is necessary? Major issues surround the treatment of greyhounds while they are racing, and their treatment after they have finished racing is fairly terminal.

The Minister must take heed of the public’s frustration. Regularly, the media reports, in horrific detail, on examples of the neglect of animals on a grand scale and on individual acts of cruelty toward all types of defenceless animals. Not all of those acts will ever come to light; however, legal right of access based on public concern could help, and that should have been in place before now.

I doubt whether the Minister or the Department has a problem with the five freedoms, as declared by the Animal Welfare Federation Northern Ireland and others. Nevertheless, I will just repeat them. They are freedom from thirst, hunger and malnutrition; freedom from discomfort, pain and injury; freedom from disease; freedom from fear and stress; and freedom to express normal behaviour. No one objects to those freedoms, so why the delay?

I have here photographs that show what can happen to a dog when it is neglected. It is suffering from trauma to the tip and every joint of its tail; indeed, some of its tail has rotted away. It is underweight and emaciated. It has dermatitis and dermatosis. It has a lesion on the bridge of its nose that would make you sick, and it has hookworm and sarcoptic mange.

I mention that particular case because that dog has been held by the state in custody since September 2007 under dangerous-dogs legislation. It used to be a well-behaved household pet. I do not know whether it was dangerous: that is what the argument is about. However, it has never bitten anyone and there is no record of aggression. It has been changed from being a healthy animal to an emaciated wreck while in the care of the state. It has been kept in solitary confinement and has suffered in a way in which the legislation that we now demand would never have allowed.

There are examples galore and there will be more while we wait for the Government to take action. It is particularly annoying to see the Government of another jurisdiction acting on a matter on which we should be taking the lead. I hope that the Minister is not allowing her politics to overrule her compassion on this matter. I urge her urgently to bring forward legislation that is based on the British model.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton DUP

I thank Mr Elliott, Mr McCallister and Mr Savage for securing the debate. I will approach it from a slightly different angle to that of other Members — from the perspective of abuses of wild animals, particularly those that are used in travelling circuses.

There was a time in this country when barbaric sports such as bear-baiting drew large crowds, when wild bears were tormented to make them react in a violent way for entertainment. Thankfully, society has moved beyond that point. My party colleague the Rev William McCrea referred to organised dogfighting, which was, at one time, common, open and thought to be acceptable. I welcome the fact that all right-thinking people now reject that as a sport. Cockfighting was a centuries old blood sport in which two birds that were bred specifically for fighting fought to the death. Society also rejected that bloody so-called sport, and moved on.

Each of those activities was recognised as a cruel and nasty form of animal treatment, and society demanded an end to that type of animal exploitation. However, there is a form of so-called entertainment that is still active — although it is in decline, which I welcome — which many people find unacceptable and for which people have been taken to court as they pose as animal lovers. I refer, of course, to the animal menagerie, or, indeed, the travelling circus.

For too long, those outdated forms of perverted amusement have travelled the length and breadth of the UK, the Republic of Ireland, and across Europe, touring once-magnificent wild animals in beast wagons for hours on end. A circus is a commercial business activity that trains wild animals to carry out tricks that are not natural to them and which require many hours of degrading, routine practice until the animals, in the eyes of the whip-carrying trainer, get it right.

It is probable that any travelling circus that comes to Northern Ireland will meet all its legislative obligations on animal welfare, but only because the legislation is so out of date. During recent years, however, there have been revelations about how circus animals are ill-treated in order to force them to perform for the paying public. In fact, some of those once-proud and mighty animals do not take easily to riding on each other’s backs and jumping through hoops and, therefore, must rehearse until they meet the trainer’s demands.

A touring circus spends many hours moving from location to location, and the animals are caged while they travel in the beast wagons. They are confined for hours with little time for exercise. It is impossible for a travelling menagerie to give animals the amenities that they need. Animals such as lions, rhinos, hippos and elephants are shipped in beast wagons across the seas on long gruelling journeys and moved from Italy, France, or Germany to the UK or Ireland.

I encourage parents to consider the welfare of animals before they visit any travelling circus. There are many successful circuses that do not use wild animals; those that do are an antiquated relic of an earlier period. I welcome Belfast City Council’s unanimous decision to ban animal circuses from performing on council property. Some councils in GB and the Republic of Ireland have also taken that decision.

It is time for the Assembly to give this matter serious consideration and for the Minister to address it in the manner that other Members have suggested. The legislation is out of date; it is more than 30 years old, and it is minimalist in its content.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP 6:45 pm, 26th January 2009

I support the motion that has been tabled by the Ulster Unionist Party. Wearing my other hat, I declare an interest as a member of Ards Borough Council, which is also aware of the problem. I was horrified to see the media reports on the breeding of puppies. I will focus on the Province’s puppy farms, where dogs are regularly treated disgustingly before being sold on.

The term “puppy farm” conjures images of little puppies bounding around in the sunshine in fields and playing away to their hearts’ content. That is the ‘Jackanory’ way of looking at it, but the reality is very different. I read a description of a puppy farm that disturbed me greatly. It stated:

A puppy farm is hard to define, since it could be any size, any location and any number of dogs involved — it does not have to be on an actual farm!”

The puppies do not bound aimlessly around, they are confined and mistreated.

“A puppy farm can also have a license issued by the local council and sell puppies that are registered with the Kennel Club and come with ‘pedigree’ certificates…The best way to describe a puppy farm is to say that it is a place where puppies are bred, purely as a way to make money, with little or no regard for the health and welfare of the dogs involved…since responsible breeding is actually an expensive business.”

I realise that some puppy farms are legal and conform to the requirements of UK legislation, but that is by choice rather than by law. Those puppy farmers voluntarily allow councils’ environmental health officers to visit, but there are a great many other puppy farmers who look upon it as a business. They will cut as many costs as possible so that they can make the maximum profit, and they do not care about the suffering or if a few puppies die in the process.

Cost cutting includes: breeding from bitches too often and from too young an age; cramming dogs into unsuitable kennelling and feeding only enough for them to survive and breed; not giving proper veterinary care or vaccinations; and putting pups up for sale when they are too young to leave their mothers.

Tha Laa’ surroondin dug ferms an ither leevstock metters haes bin lauched at as fu’ o’loop holes an no tuch enouch fer tae tak oan tha proablim. In scrivven woark fae tha USPCA wi’ regerds tae leevstock wull-bein, it’s cleer whut they think. Tha 1972 wullfare o’ animals is past it’s sell bi’ date.

The law surrounding puppy farms and other animal-welfare issues has been criticised as full of loopholes and not tough enough to properly tackle the problem. The USPCA is clear in its view that the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 1972 is past its sell-by date. The most glaring omission is the absence of an offence of keeping an animal in conditions that are likely to cause suffering. That is the sort of change to legislation that we want to be made. Our welfare officers are limited to doling out advice that often falls on deaf ears, rather than affording proper protection to animals that are being kept in shocking conditions.

In the UK, a new law deems it an offence to keep animals in conditions that do not meet basic welfare standards. Trevor Lunn referred to the five freedoms, which are all basic things that we take for granted. However, animals in the Province do not have that protection.

I have been told that the new legislation across the water has led to a dramatic increase in prosecutions by the RSPCA. However, in the Province, the USPCA has no power to prosecute and, therefore, offers no real threat to those who mistreat animals. If new law was introduced, the USPCA could investigate matters and recommend court action. The USPCA wants the new law for Northern Ireland, which was first proposed under direct rule, to match up with new legislation on the mainland. As other Members have said, that must be done urgently in order to stop the suffering of many animals in the Province who are being abused and neglected.

It is important that the Republic of Ireland is changing its legislation. Earlier, my colleague Trevor Clarke mentioned the cross-border trade; it is worrying that animals can cross the border but ignore the legislation in the Republic. The USPCA said that the fact that keeping an animal in conditions likely to cause suffering is not against the law in Northern Ireland is crazy. Under current legislation, the onus is on the USPCA to prove that the animals have already suffered before it can intervene and close down the premises. It must play a waiting game until the animal shows evidence of suffering or dies.

Despite an update to the law in England and Wales in April 2007, similar changes have yet to be introduced in the Province, which operates under an antiquated law that came into force in 1972. We must act urgently and make changes in order to end inhumane treatment. There is an old saying that a dog is a man’s best friend; we must do a much better job of taking care of him and her, and it must begin now.

Photo of George Savage George Savage UUP

I support the motion that stands in my name and that of my two party colleagues. I echo their calls for the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to review the animal-welfare legislation urgently in order to ensure that animal-welfare standards are, at least, equivalent to those in the rest of the UK.

As we speak, an animal-welfare issue is ongoing. Last week’s edition of the ‘Lurgan Mail’ contained a report of a horse that was tied up and left in unsatisfactory conditions, tethered to a lamp post on a path at the rear of Legahory Court and Burnside in Craigavon. The horse is in a poor state and has no access to food, water or adequate shelter. It is abundantly clear that that is an animal-welfare issue. However, under the current legislation, it is not an offence to keep an animal in conditions that are likely to cause suffering. That is a major issue.

As the law stands, action can only be taken if cruelty is apparent and demonstrable. Furthermore, there is ambiguity as to whether it is legal to seize an animal. In the newspaper report, a USPCA representative explained:

“Our hands are tied. It is a source of frustration and embarrassment for our officers. The law shortchanges the animal it’s meant to protect.”

The police and the USPCA are prevented from intervening until an animal is suffering — such as being on its knees, unable to get up, and so on. In this day and age, that is totally intolerable. I have highlighted the case in the House in order to demonstrate the inadequacy of the legislation. I want the Minister to respond to that, and I ask her to do all in her power to ensure that the animal is passed to the USPCA for proper care and safe keeping.

We cannot wait for the Republic of Ireland to get its act together; its animal-welfare regulations are a century out of date. Furthermore, what guarantee is there that the Republic of Ireland will get its house in order on the issue any time soon?

The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s consultation ended over two years ago, but has yet to be published or acted upon. We cannot procrastinate any longer. We must act now — not tomorrow, next week or next month — and enact legislation that will support the industry.

When people abuse the situation and the welfare of animals, it must be the time to bring in legislation, and to do so immediately. I ask the Minister to use her good offices to introduce legislation to protect the animals of this country.

Photo of George Robinson George Robinson DUP

I am pleased to be able to support the motion, as it will address a long-standing gap in legislation in Northern Ireland compared with the rest of the United Kingdom. I am especially pleased as I believe that it will have a positive impact on the disgusting practices of puppy farming, fighting dogs and cruelty to pets.

I am sure that all Members heard of the awful case in Coleraine, where a pet retriever was so viciously treated that it died. The individual who carried out the mistreatment was sentenced to only six months’ imprisonment. That conviction was a welcome result for all who were shocked by the brutality of the case. However, it was a clear-cut case, where prosecution was easily justified. In other cases those who enforce the law have their hands tied by weak legislation. Updated legislation, at least equal to the rest of the UK, is now essential.

We must all remember that despicable practices such as puppy farming can still be legally carried out here. Not only does that cause suffering to the animals involved in the breeding production line, but much heartache is caused when a sickly new pet dies shortly after arriving at a new home. I also believe that puppy farming is strongly linked to the dogfighting scene. If we can in some way stop the puppy farms, we may also have a big impact on the breeding of the dogs that are forced to fight to pleasure their own owners and a paying crowd of blood-seekers.

As we are all aware, the global economy has suffered a downturn. There is evidence to show that, at such a time, pets can be discarded because of the expense of keeping them, especially if they are old or sick. New legislation would enable stronger enforcement to be carried out. If someone decides to dump a dog, and that person can be traced, there will be effective legislation with which to deal with the individual in the appropriate legal manner.

I see a change in legislation as the only way in which we can protect innocent creatures from exploitation. By strengthening the legislation to at least equal that of the rest of the UK, we would be protecting the proportion of animals that are abused for profit, or due to economic reasons. I support the motion.

Photo of Michelle Gildernew Michelle Gildernew Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the proposers of the motion and the amendment for raising the issue of animal-welfare legislation. I agree that there is a need to protect animals from unnecessary suffering and cruelty. It is something that I feel strongly about and is a matter that I have been working on addressing since coming into office.

It is my intention to introduce legislation on the issue as quickly as possible, but there is also a need to ensure that the legislation is robust and adequate, and does not leave loopholes, either here in Ireland or between here and Britain. We need to get the legislation right, and I am very grateful to have the opportunity to debate the subject and to hear the views of Members. The debate also gives me an opportunity to outline to Members the actions that I have taken to date on animal welfare, and my plans for the future.

I am, of course, already aware of many of the issues raised by the Members who have spoken. Although the primary responsibility for the welfare of an animal rests with its owner or keeper, I agree that there is a need to provide protection to animals through robust and enforceable legislation. As has been pointed out by a number of Members, animal welfare in the North is governed by the Welfare of Animals Act 1972. Until very recently, animal-welfare legislation in England and Wales was spread over some 23 Acts of Parliament, going back to the Protection of Animals Act 1911, which was itself a consolidation of nineteenth-century legislation. As a result of significant judicial criticism of the language of that legislation, a new Animal Welfare Act came into force in England and Wales in 2007, and in Scotland in 2006.

Unlike in Britain, animal-welfare legislation had, to some degree, already been simplified and consolidated by the Welfare of Animals Act 1972. That Act makes it an offence to cause unnecessary suffering or cruelty to an animal, and the owner of an animal can be judged to have permitted cruelty if he has failed to exercise reasonable care and supervision in order to prevent an animal suffering.

In addition to general welfare legislation, the Welfare of Farmed Animals Regulations 2000 set out minimum standards for all farmed animals and provided a framework for species-specific standards. That legislation requires owners and keepers of farm animals to take all reasonable steps to ensure the welfare of their animals, and to ensure that they are not caused any unnecessary pain, suffering or distress. Therefore, anyone who is responsible for a farmed animal must ensure that the animal’s needs are met.

Some people have suggested that the legislation that relates to the welfare of non-farmed animals — such as companion animals or pets — is not as robust as that for farm animals. To a certain extent, I agree with that view. It is one of the reasons that I have been considering what new legislation is needed.

My Department consulted on proposals for new animal-welfare legislation in late 2006. As that exercise was carried out under direct rule, I wanted to take time to fully consider the issues that were raised and the points that were received at that time. I agree with Members — particularly with Mr Shannon — about the very important role that the USPCA plays in relation to education and highlighting animal-welfare issues. However, the USPCA does not have enforcement powers — those lie with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the PSNI.

Following an initial review of the comments — which clearly showed support for new legislation — my officials and I met a range of key stakeholders, including the NI Companion Animal Welfare Committee. That body is made up of a number of groups, including the Blue Cross, the Dogs Trust, Cats Protection, the Animal Welfare Federation and the USPCA. That group has the support of several MLAs, and I welcome, and am grateful for, their interest in this issue.

Discussions have also been held with the Animal Welfare Federation, the Captive Animals’ Protection Society and the Kennel Club, as well as a number of other interests. All those meetings were exceptionally useful and informative. I found discussions with welfare groups in Britain particularly insightful as they have first-hand experience of how the Animal Welfare Act 2006 worked on the ground, and of some of the flaws that are contained in the legislation. In addition, my officials continue to meet with the PSNI to discuss aspects of the enforcement of animal-welfare legislation.

The comments that were made to me in those discussions — and in correspondence cases from members of the public —mirror many of the issues that were raised by Members today. For example, we heard calls for legislation to include a specific offence of failing to provide a duty of care for animals. I have also been asked to consider the level of penalties for cruelty offences, and there have been calls for further regulation of activities such as travelling circuses, greyhound racing and puppy farming. Those issues are central to my ongoing consideration of what new animal-welfare legislation may be needed.

With regard to the need to ensure that all animals are subject to a duty of care, Trevor Lunn highlighted the five freedoms. Those are a fundamental principle that already underpin EU legislation on the protection of farm animals. The principle is set out in the Department’s codes of recommendation for the welfare of livestock. The codes aim to encourage all those who care for farm animals to follow the highest level of animal husbandry. It is clear that owners of all animals should be required to take all reasonable steps to prevent unnecessary suffering from happening.

I also agree that the level of penalties that is currently available to the courts is not a sufficient deterrent to provide adequate protection for animals. Involvement in the so-called sport of dogfighting is one area that comes to mind in which higher penalties are being considered. That is an absolute necessity, in my view.

A further issue is that of puppy farming, which was mentioned by Mr Shannon and a number of other Members who have spoken. The regulation of commercial dog breeding in the North is far less onerous than the legislation that covers the breeding and selling of dogs in Britain, where such activities have been illegal since 1999. That legislation was not fully replicated in the North at that time as there was no evidence of puppy farmers operating here. Consequently, puppy farming remains legal here — provided that dogs are kept in premises that are registered with the local council and meet the minimal requirements that are set out in the Dogs Order 1983.

I have been concerned about that issue for some time. I want to deal with that in new legislation that will mirror that of Britain and end the intensive farming of puppies here. Puppy farming is an all-Ireland problem, so I also plan to raise that matter with Ministers in Dublin.

I was very interested in the comments that Robin Newton made in relation to circuses. In answers to a number of Assembly questions over recent months, I have stated that my Department’s role in circuses is very limited.

The Welfare of Animals Act 1972 allows for the protection of all animals, but there are no specific provisions for the welfare of animals in circuses. Nevertheless, many people are concerned about that matter, so I am actively considering whether there is a need for further regulation. That would require primary legislation, which would take time, but the Assembly should nevertheless consider it.

Members spoke about other matters, particularly the incidents at Katesbridge and the open farm near Loughbrickland. In recent months, in response to Assembly questions, I have advised Members that I have commissioned an independent review of the actions taken in Katesbridge, and as part of my consideration of that review, I will reflect on any issues raised concerning Little Acre Open Farm.

Of course, when we see images of squalor and filth on farms, or of rotting carcasses, we are right to be concerned that animals might be suffering. However, in itself, that is not sufficient evidence that an offence has been committed. Veterinary surgeons must be objective in assessing evidence and coming to a judgement about what is likely to constitute a case of welfare abuse. When DARD staff inspect farms, they can only report on what they find on the day, so they might not witness animal-welfare problems. Members must appreciate that animals can get sick and die quickly, and that that is not proof that abuse has occurred or that an offence has been committed. Having said that, I will take on board any lessons that can be learned from these cases, with regard both to enforcement and to the safeguards required in the legislation.

In addition, in recent months, my officials have been liaising with the PSNI and USPCA, and consideration is being given to how enforcement agencies can work together to ensure the best possible protection for animals.

On Friday, my officials became aware of a welfare case involving a horse in Craigavon, and they immediately referred it to the local PSNI, because, with regard to non-farm animals, the police are responsible for enforcing the 1972 Act. I understand that local officers are aware of ongoing difficulties in the area, and they were expected to follow up on recent complaints earlier this afternoon. I have asked to be kept informed of developments.

As I said, it is an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to any animal, and an owner can be judged to have permitted cruelty if he fails to exercise reasonable care to prevent unnecessary suffering. It is also an offence to abandon an animal, and the PSNI has the power to seize an injured or sick horse, or, in the worst cases, to have it destroyed in order to prevent further suffering.

There are no specific requirements in legislation to license farms that are open to the public. However, all owners and keepers of farm animals are required to comply fully with the 1972 Act and with the Welfare of Farmed Animals Regulations 2000. Inspections to ensure compliance are carried out by the Veterinary Service, which also investigates welfare complaints made by members of the public and carries out targeted farm inspections where welfare issues have been identified.

I am considering setting up an early-warning and intervention system for farm-animal welfare cases, and I hope to discuss that with farmers’ representatives, the USPCA and the PSNI. Such a system would be one way in which DARD could work closely with those agencies to identify and address real, and potential, cases in which the welfare of farm animals might be compromised. The objective would be to provide a framework within which problems could be identified before they become serious.

Under the 2000 regulations, inspectors can serve an improvement notice to a keeper stipulating the steps necessary to improve the welfare of his or her animals. That is an effective tool for ensuring that an animal’s needs are met. Failure to comply with a notice can lead to a prosecution, and I am considering extending powers to serve improvement notices to keepers of companion animals.

In the past, I have stated that it is important that animal-welfare legislation be broadly compatible throughout the island of Ireland. Indeed, that is a key component of the draft all-island animal health and welfare strategy. It is important to note that, based on experiences in Britain, where some difficulties have arisen due to differences between English and Scottish legislation, several welfare representatives, particularly British organisations, have expressed support for an all-island approach. As I said, puppy farming, the control of dangerous dogs and dogfighting are matters that must be tackled on an all-island basis.

I welcome the publication of outline proposals for new animal disease and welfare legislation by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in Dublin.

Work on our legislation is ongoing, and my review of animal-welfare legislation is nearing completion. I will examine all the evidence presented to me, and I will consider the scope for new legislation in the North in line with available resources.

I hope that my statement has dealt with Members’ concerns sufficiently, but I will read the Hansard report to check whether there are any issues that I have not covered. I have attempted to describe the actions that I have taken on animal welfare, and I have informed the House of discussions that I have held with key animal-welfare stakeholders from here and Britain.

Photo of Michelle Gildernew Michelle Gildernew Sinn Féin

Not at the moment.

I welcome Member’s comments this afternoon, and I will reflect upon those. However, Members must remember that we are working on the legislation in the North; we are certainly looking at the legislation in other areas, but we are considering our own legislation.

I have also been reviewing animal-welfare legislation across the board. Therefore I support the motion and the amendment. It is incumbent upon the Department to review the legislation as quickly as possible. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

I call P J Bradley to make a winding-up speech on the amendment. He has five minutes.

Photo of P J Bradley P J Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I will not take five minutes, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I am disappointed that some Members found fault with the amendment; said that I said things that I did not; and spoke of actions that I did not seek or promote. If they read the Hansard report, they will find that they accused me of saying things that I did not say and of seeking actions that I did not seek.

Of the Members who spoke in the debate, I pay tribute to Jim Shannon for his sincere and genuine contribution. He was keen to address animal cruelty; he did not politicise it in any way, and, for that, I thank him.

My amendment makes common sense, and there is no reason for Members to vote against it. I am not asking that we replicate the rules or regulations in the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland. Rather, I am asking that we introduce legislation immediately that contains the best of all worlds. Let us take the best from the legislation in England, which, as we heard, is inadequate; from Scotland, which has its faults; likewise, from Wales; and from the Republic of Ireland, although it is behind the times. We should take the best bits from the legislation in those countries and introduce it as our own. That will mean that our legislation will be as good as there is on these islands. I do not understand how anyone who is serious about the issue can vote against that. I urge the House to support the amendment.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

I call John McCallister to give the winding-up speech on the motion. He has ten minutes.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

It has been interesting to listen to the debate. There is general agreement that something must be done on the issue quickly. Since the end of direct rule and during the early stages of the devolved Administration, we have continued to debate this important issue, but no progress has been made.

My colleague Mr Elliott moved the motion and highlighted that there is a lack of effective legislation. He said that it was necessary to tighten up the legislation. No progress has been made on animal-welfare legislation in Northern Ireland since 1972. DARD consulted on the matter more than two years ago, but since then, there have been no developments.

The House has no difficulty with an all-Ireland approach. However, the problem with P J Bradley’s amendment is that if the Republic of Ireland were a shining beacon of hope on animal welfare, we might well look to them to provide leadership on the issue, or we might consider what parts of their legislation would be beneficial to us. However, the bottom line is that their legislation dates from 1911 — long before the creation of the Republic of Ireland. That means that they have never legislated on animal welfare, and that does not instil any confidence that they are taking the issue seriously.

All Members who contributed to the debate have said that we need to act on the issue quickly rather than wait, and that is why my colleagues and I object to the inclusion of the Republic of Ireland in the motion.

I accept P J Bradley’s comments about the problems experienced in South Down. That is why it is imperative that animal-welfare legislation is reviewed, and we need not wait years for the Republic of Ireland to catch up.

Dr William McCrea, the Chairperson of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, was also strongly in support of shortening the timetable for legislation, and he also pointed out that any loopholes in the Welfare of Animals (Northern Ireland) Act 1972 must be closed. The Committee has been trying to push the Minister to act. Despite having been briefed by witnesses and officials, the Committee has not seen any action on various issues, including breeding dogs for fighting and the introduction of tougher sentences. Dr McCrea was critical of the notion that the Assembly should even consider waiting for the Republic of Ireland to legislate.

Mr Doherty mentioned legislation that was introduced in the Scottish Parliament in 2006 and in England and Wales in 2007. He also talked about liaising with the Republic of Ireland and the rest of the UK, but why should we delay the legislation? Mr Doherty and the Minister are MPs in Westminster and had they taken the seats to which they were elected, they could have pressed for the legislation there.

Mr Lunn recounted some personal stories, and he also passed on to me some harrowing photographs of the abuse of dogs. He shares other Members’ frustration at the delay in taking action, and he sees no need or reason for the Assembly to wait for the Republic of Ireland to act. The Assembly has the legislative authority for Northern Ireland.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin 7:15 pm, 26th January 2009

I apologise for not being present for the entire debate. I am concerned that simple xenophobia is among the reasons that some Members may be considering voting against the amendment. Is the Member aware that the Republic of Ireland has prepared legislation to the extent that it will be presented to the Minister next month? Surely the Assembly would be wise to study that legislation to ensure that harmonious action is taken on the welfare of animals on this island.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

I thank the Member for his intervention. If he thinks that the Republic will be ready to present legislation next month — and I have no reason to doubt him — why is the Minister not following suit and presenting legislation to the Assembly next month? I have not reached the stage of talking about the Minister’s contribution, but she gave no timetable for legislation. She said that she listened to Members’ concerns, and we have no reason to doubt that she is serious about, and committed to, addressing the issue. However, the logic that follows from Mr O’Dowd’s point is that the Assembly is also almost ready to legislate, but the Minister did not mention any timetable for that. If the Minister wishes to tell the House when the legislation will be ready, I am happy to give way to her.

To return to Mr Lunn’s contribution, one of his key phrases used in reference to the Minister was not to:

“allow politics to overrule her compassion on the matter.”

Mr Newton took a different approach and spoke about cruelty to circus animals. He said that some councils have not permitted circuses in their areas. It would be useful to raise that issue at European level; I am happy to write to my colleague Jim Nicholson MEP about that.

Mr Shannon spoke about how outdated some puppy farming is and how he wants it to evolve — and we all know that a dog is a man’s best friend.

My colleague Mr Savage highlighted the lack of legislation and said that the Assembly must act much more quickly to progress that. He also mentioned a particular issue in his constituency.

The Minister outlined the concerns and gave Members some of the background to the legislation, such as the Protection of Animals Act 1911 that was updated in England and Wales in 2007, and other reasonable measures that have been taken. Again, I return to the point that the Minister spoke about wanting to take her time to produce robust and effective legislation, which is fine because that is what we all want.

The purpose of the motion is to try to ensure that DARD and the Minister move on the issue. We want to see that happen. The Minister has been in post for nearly 20 months; consultation started in late 2006, and it is now early 2009. Therefore, it is not unreasonable for the Assembly to ask her about the legislation. If her colleague Mr O’Dowd is correct and the Republic is further ahead than us, she should want to catch up.

In response to Mr Newton, the Minister said that DARD has a limited role in circuses. However, having observed DARD for several years, I am not sure how true that is.

The general mood of the House is that it would like to see the legislation moving forward at a much faster pace.

The Ulster Unionist Party has genuine concerns about Mr P J Bradley’s amendment to include the Republic of Ireland. We have the legislative competence to do it here; let us get on with it. The real evil is not partition, it is animal cruelty.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and negatived.

Main Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly calls on the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, in light of recent events, to review the welfare of animals legislation as a matter of urgency to ensure that animal-welfare standards are at least equivalent to those in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Adjourned at 7.22 pm.