Animal Cruelty Register

Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 5th October 2021.

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Photo of Pam Cameron Pam Cameron DUP 2:00 pm, 5th October 2021

2. Mrs Cameron asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs for an update on the introduction of an animal cruelty register. (AQO 2527/17-22)

Photo of Joanne Bunting Joanne Bunting DUP

11. Ms Bunting asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs for an update on the implementation of an animal cruelty register. (AQO 2536/17-22)

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will group questions 2 and 11 for answer.

I firmly believe that, where persons have been convicted of animal cruelty offences and banned by the courts from keeping animals, all actions that can reasonably be undertaken to reduce the risk of reoffending should be pursued. As such, I welcome the recent public petition on the potential for an animal cruelty register and am keen to explore how such a register would operate in Northern Ireland. I have already engaged with the Minister of Justice on the topic. My officials have been liaising with their counterparts in her Department. Officials have also been reviewing the effectiveness and impact of similar registers already in operation elsewhere.

Over the past number of months, significant progress has been made on identifying the key issues that need to be addressed if such a register is to be implemented and maintained in Northern Ireland. The issues include compliance with data protection legislation and the appropriate disclosure of, or access to, conviction data. I have requested that my officials take those efforts forward and develop proposals on potential next steps before the end of this year.

Photo of Pam Cameron Pam Cameron DUP

I thank the Minister for his answer. The animal cruelty register is a very important subject. I would like to see one come into operation. Would the Minister like to expand on any conversations that he has had with the Minister of Justice and tell us more about any issues that have arisen through those conversations?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

We have had correspondence. We have also had verbal communication in meetings on the issue. It is an important issue that we should progress and move forward.

I do not quite get all the issues around the data. Most of the offences are published. The cases have been through court so are already in the public domain. I am therefore not so sure that we need to be as cautious when it comes to the whole data protection element. If the information is already in the public domain, from what are we protecting individuals? Ultimately, we need to ensure that individuals who have been found guilty of cruelty to animals do not have the opportunity to do it again. The more people who are aware of that, the better. I encourage people to question the Department of Justice on the issue as well. We are very keen to move it forward. It will not be in the lifetime of this Assembly, but I believe that we will get there nonetheless. I believe that the public want and desire an animal cruelty register, as I do this House.

Photo of Joanne Bunting Joanne Bunting DUP

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. It is a serious issue that is of concern to many in Northern Ireland. As the Minister outlined, the problem is that, if somebody is given a sentence of not being allowed to keep an animal but there is no means of implementing or enforcing that sentence, it becomes immaterial.

I am aware that, a couple of weeks ago, in response to Mrs Kelly, the Justice Minister said that some of the delay was in DOJ. On that basis, will the Minister outline the impact of the delay on progressing the issue? What can be done to address the impasse between the two Departments?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 2:15 pm, 5th October 2021

The issue was raised with me earlier in the mandate, and I have been prepared to move forward on it, but we have not yet been able to do so. In the Department of Justice, there appear to be considerable issues and concerns about how we can handle the data and engage in compliance with existing procedures. I think that we can overcome all those things and move forward. I hope that, before we get to the end of this mandate, the Department of Justice will be in a position to give the new Minister room to move this forward in conjunction with a future AERA Minister.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am aware of the Minister's commitment to delivering on the animal cruelty register. However, the petition had an all-Ireland dimension, and some of the animals sold come from obnoxious puppy farms in Scotland and elsewhere. Has the Minister had an opportunity to discuss the possibility of a shared register not only with the South of Ireland but with England, Scotland and Wales?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

We need to get it over the first hurdle, and that is what we can do here. I have no problem whatsoever in sharing information with colleagues in any of the jurisdictions that the Member mentioned. It makes logical sense. Mr Newton has a private Member's Bill that would outlaw large-scale puppy farms and the production of animals purely for profit. I support that legislation, and I hope that the Assembly will support it and facilitate its delivery. The Bill will go through the House over the next number of months, and it is one of the private Member's Bills that, in my mind, stands out in its importance and in what it can deliver. It will leave a good mark for this Assembly mandate as it comes to a close.

Photo of Emma Sheerin Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin

Further to Mrs Kelly's question, does the Minister agree that an all-island animal cruelty register would be the most effective way of preventing repeat offenders — those who have been convicted in one but not both jurisdictions?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I recognise that the movements of people who engage in animal cruelty can be very fluid. Establishing a register in the first instance would be very positive, and the ability to share that register with others would also be a positive move, whether on this island or throughout the entirety of these islands.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

The Minister spoke about compliance with data protection and said that he wants a register that can be shared with others. Is he indicating that the register will be available to the public to check, if they want to buy a puppy, that they are buying from an appropriate source?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

That needs further thought. The register should certainly be available to dog wardens and to people who look after the well-being of animals and monitor compliance. Therefore, the register should be available to veterinary services, dog wardens, police and other bodies. Whether it is made totally available to the public will not be in my hands. That will be a consideration in discussion with the Department of Justice. However, I see merit in it.