Clause 3 - Responsibility for animals

Animal Welfare Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:30 am on 17th January 2006.

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Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 11:30 am, 17th January 2006

I beg to move amendment No. 108, in clause 3, page 2, line 9, leave out 'responsible' and insert 'who has accepted responsibility'.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 109, in clause 3, page 2, line 9, after 'animal', insert

'(and any offspring that animal may subsequently have)'.

No. 110, in clause 3, page 2, line 13, at end insert

'and any offspring that that animal may produce'.

No. 111, in clause 3, page 2, line 13, at end insert

', except when responsibility for an animal has been passed onto another person on a temporary basis.'.  

No. 92, in clause 3, page 2, line 16, at end add—

'(5) For the purposes of this Act, in the event of a person unlawfully taking possession of an animal, he will be treated as being responsible for that animal on a temporary basis, until such time as that the animal is recovered by its lawful owner.'.

No. 96, in clause 4, page 2, line 26, at end insert

'as the owner or on a temporary basis,'.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 11:45 am, 17th January 2006

We touched on the passing over of responsibility, and the amendment would clarify the situation regarding animals that may enter into someone's care inadvertently by making it explicit in the Bill that a person has to make a conscious choice to accept responsibility for an animal.

As drafted, the Bill does not refer to the responsibility assigned to a person if an animal enters their land or is born on to it without their knowledge or permission. Many people have expressed concern about the possibility that a person would automatically become responsible for an animal for which they might not want responsibility, and would have all the welfare duties conferred on them under the Bill. That could come about because, under common law, a person acquires a qualified property right on any wild-born animal on his land, and under clause 3(3), the owner of an animal will always be responsible for it. The amendment would ensure that the landowner would not be obliged to care for an animal that could be deemed to have fallen inadvertently under their ownership, if they chose not to.

Amendment No. 190 would guarantee that the protection under the Bill would cover the offspring of a mother animal that would be covered by the Bill. The Bill makes no provision for newborns. That could leave a loophole. For example, if an owner is responsible for a pregnant animal, under clause 1(2) they are not responsible for the foetus. However, there are no provisions detailing the right of the animal once it is born, and who is responsible for it. We have all heard of unwanted puppies or kittens being put into bags and thrown into rivers, and other horrible stories. The Bill will protect animals by holding the owner of the parent animal to account, as they would be statutorily responsible for the offspring.

Amendment No. 111 would clarify the contradiction in the clause. Clause 3(1) refers to a person being responsible for an animal,

''whether on a permanent or temporary basis.''

That potentially conflicts with clause 3(3), which states:

''For the purposes of this Act, a person who owns an animal shall always be regarded as being a person who is responsible for it.''

It is unclear whether, when control of an animal is passed temporarily to another person, that person becomes the animal's owner, with the ownership responsibilities conferred by the Bill.

If that contradiction is not cleared up, a person who has been left in control of an animal on a temporary basis and who has not ensured its welfare, may not always be prosecuted, as they will not be the animal's owner and will not therefore be responsible for it   under clause 3(3). Moreover, the owner could be prosecuted when he or she had done no direct harm to the animal, and had only passed over control of it in good faith. The amendment would ensure that when control of an animal is given to another person, that person will have legal responsibility under the Bill, despite not having ownership of the animal.

Amendment No. 92 would close a loophole in the Bill with regard to animal theft. The Bill makes no provision for identifying the persons responsible for an animal once it has been stolen. Under existing theft laws, the theft of pets is treated in a manner not too dissimilar from the way in which the theft of household property such as televisions is handled. It is important that, in those circumstances, the Bill should still apply to protect animals. About one in four pet owners worries about the possibility of theft, and we should legislate to ensure that those responsible for the theft are also responsible for the welfare of the animals that they choose to steal. At what would be a stressful time for a pet owner, it might be some comfort to know that at least the animal would be protected, or that the thief could be prosecuted under the Bill. By making thieves responsible for the animals that they steal, the amendment will make it easier to prosecute them if they harm or damage the animal once they have unlawfully taken possession of it.

Amendment No. 96 will guarantee that a person who is in control of an animal on a temporary basis can be prosecuted for violating the provisions of the Bill and that the animal's owner, who may not be in control of the animal at that time, will not be prosecuted. Clause 3(3) states that the owner of an animal

''shall always be regarded as being a person who is responsible for it.''

That makes it legally possible for owners to be prosecuted for not preventing harm to their animals, even if they were not in control of the animal at the time of the offence. We know that there are circumstances in which responsibility can be conferred on someone else on a temporary basis, and that it would not be right for the owner to be prosecuted if an offence were committed in such circumstances. The amendment would ensure that those responsible for an offence are the ones who are prosecuted for it so as not to waste precious court time and resources.

Photo of Justine Greening Justine Greening Vice-Chair (Youth), Conservative Party

I very much support the points that my hon. Friend has just made, particularly about amendment No. 92, which would close a loophole at a time when an animal may be most at risk. I accept that there might not have been so many regular cases of dogs being kidnapped and pets being taken out of their environment by other people in the past, but unfortunately it is becoming increasingly common. Only before Christmas, there was an incident in the local shopping centre in Wandsworth in which a family pet dog that had been tethered was taken. Fortunately, it was returned in a good state several days later. It would be worth closing that loophole because of such a risk.  

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare)

I note that amendment No. 108 misconstrues the purposes of subsection (1), which has been included in clause 3 to clarify the fact that responsibility does not necessarily require a permanent relationship between man and animal. One might be considered responsible for an animal even if one's relationship with it is only temporary. That is obviously a necessary clarification. If a vet takes in an animal overnight for treatment or if a boarding establishment takes in an animal for care, their relationship with the animal is certainly only temporary, but I am sure that hon. Members will agree that a vet or a boarding establishment should be considered responsible for meeting the animal's welfare needs while the animal is with them.

The purpose of amendment No. 108 is to change the scope of responsibility quite fundamentally. Its effect would be to introduce a subjective element into the idea of responsibility. Responsibility can be said to arise only where the person actually accepts it. That would be a significant change to the current position under the Bill in which a person can be considered to have responsibility for an animal even if he did not actually accept it, because any reasonable person would consider that he had responsibility.

For example, the person who has responsibility for a child who owns an animal is to be considered responsible for the animal. That responsible adult may not actually have accepted responsibility for that animal, although I hope that that will become a less prevalent problem once the effects of clause 9 and the ban on under-16s acquiring animals kick in. Any reasonable person would, however, ultimately consider themselves responsible for the welfare of their child's animal.

The Bill should reflect that position. If it did not, it would be a defence against the welfare offence or any of the offences that might be created in future regulations simply to say, ''I did not accept responsibility for it.'' That would not be progress. The Bill would have taken a wrong turn if we involved prosecutors in lengthy arguments as they tried to prove that each defendant actually subjectively accepted responsibility of the animal in question.

Amendments Nos. 109 and 110 would ensure that a person who is responsible for an animal would also always be responsible for its offspring. I agree that that should often be the case, but it would not always be appropriate. Under the Bill, such a person is already responsible for that offspring in all cases in which they should be considered responsible for it. Someone who is responsible for an animal that gives birth to offspring would often be responsible for that offspring either because they own it or because they would be in charge of it. In cases in which it is appropriate, therefore, the offspring is already an animal for which the person is responsible, and there is no need to include such a provision specifically.

In most instances, therefore, amendments Nos. 109 and 110 would not add anything to what the Bill already provides for. On the other hand, they risk giving responsibility where none would be appropriate because of the possibly very wide use of the word ''subsequently''. It would not make sense, for example,   to be responsible for the offspring of an animal that one had already sold or given away.

The same difficulty applies equally to both amendments. The owner cannot always be responsible for offspring that may be produced at any time in the future. The Government believe that the question of whether someone should be considered to be responsible for an animal should be decided separately for each animal. On that basis, the Bill allows for the owner of an animal also to be considered responsible for its offspring, where appropriate, but it does not prescribe that they will necessarily always be responsible.

I shall explain why amendments Nos. 111 and 92 are unnecessary by clarifying how clause 3 operates. Subsection (3) explains that owning an animal will confer responsibility on the owner. That should not be misunderstood to mean that if one does not own an animal, one is not responsible for it. The other circumstances outlined in clause 3 are not intended to be an exhaustive list, but to highlight the situations that ought always to be considered to be included within an understanding of ''responsibility''.

It may be that the obligations of an owner who only has temporary responsibility for an animal are less onerous than someone with a longer-term responsibility. However, owners who own animals only on a short-term basis should nevertheless be responsible for those animals while ownership lies with them.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The confusion is about whether responsibility should rest with an owner if the owner is not in a position to discharge that responsibility—for example, if the animal has been stolen.

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare)

I will come on to that point in a moment.

An owner who temporarily shares responsibility for the animal with another—for example, the owner of a boarding establishment—should be able to rely on the responsibility of the boarding kennel owner to secure his animal's needs, as long as he has taken all reasonable steps to ensure that he is passing on responsibility to a suitable person. Further, clause 3(1) specifies that it is possible to be responsible for an animal on a temporary basis. Therefore, to answer the point raised by the hon. Gentleman, if someone were to take possession of an animal unlawfully, they would in most cases be considered to be responsible for it. They would, after all, almost certainly be ''in charge'' of it on a temporary basis.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

That person might be in charge or in control, but they would not own the animal. Clause 3(3) states that

''a person who owns an animal shall always be regarded as being a person who is responsible for it.''

It is perfectly possible to own an animal and not be able to responsible for it.

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare)

I am about to come on to that very point. The owner of an animal would also be considered to be responsible for it even if it had been stolen. However, it is important to remember that the   person responsible for an animal has to take only such steps as are reasonable in the circumstances to ensure their animal's welfare. The obligations which that responsibility put on the owner whose animal had been stolen would, in most cases, be either extremely limited or nonexistent.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

As it is the first occasion on which I have spoken, I declare my interest as a member of the Countryside Alliance. What would happen in the case of an animal knocked over by a car? If the pet was not under the immediate control of its owner, but it was injured by a road vehicle and was lying in pain on the side of the road, who would be responsible for its welfare?

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare)

The owner would have responsibility for it. However, as I have just pointed out, it would be expected only that the owner had taken reasonable care to ensure the animal's welfare. I cannot imagine a situation where a court would convict somebody for allowing their animal to be run over. However, if the animal was unable to move, it would be considered to be temporarily in the care of the person who had run it over. That person would be expected either to dispatch it humanely or to call a vet or the police to the scene to ensure that its welfare needs were met.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

To follow the Minister's point, the clarification he has given is reasonable. If an owner cannot be in a position to discharge his responsibility, that is a defence, but it is not stated in the Bill. Would it not be wise to have that qualification expressed in the clause?

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare)

We believe that the wording that says that the owner of the animal shall take steps that are reasonable in the circumstances to ensure that animal's welfare would cover the issues to which the hon. Gentleman has just referred.

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare) 12:00 pm, 17th January 2006

It is in clause 8.

Turning to amendment No. 96, clause 4(2) will make it an offence for someone who is responsible for an animal to allow another person to cause it unnecessary suffering. This will mean that if, for example, an animal owner or other person responsible for the animal watches another person beat his animal, he too can be convicted of causing unnecessary suffering. This will apply only to someone who is responsible for the animal to which they permit someone else to cause unnecessary suffering. If the amendment is intended to clarify the meaning of ''responsibility'', it is unnecessary.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The Minister is doing as good a job as can be expected. The example that sprang immediately to my mind is this: if a person sends his dog away for training and the trainer beats that dog—perhaps he is a bad trainer, or perhaps he did not do his job properly—the dog owner would be responsible according to the Minister, would he not?

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare)

Not if that person had taken reasonable measures to ensure that the animal's welfare needs had been met. If they had satisfied   themselves that the dog was going to a bona fide trainer, the trainer would be responsible for the suffering. If the owner was present when it happened and was watching, however, that would be a different matter.

The concept of responsibility is already clarified by clause 3 and does not need further clarification. Someone who owns an animal or is temporarily responsible for it will already be classified as responsible for it for the purposes of clause 4(2). If the intention of amendment No. 96 is to restrict the definition of ''responsibility'' for the purposes of clause 4(2), it is misguided.

A person can be considered responsible for an animal in more ways than by owning it or having temporary responsibility for it. For example, while a racehorse is in a trainer's stables and the trainer is in charge of it, the trainer would be responsible for the horse. However, that would not necessarily be temporary, nor would the trainer necessarily own the horse. Amendment No. 96 means that the trainer could not commit an offence of permitting someone else to cause the horse unnecessary suffering. I do not think that that is an acceptable outcome. On that basis, I urge the hon. Member for Leominster to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am not sure that I completely understood that. If the racehorse is in a trainer's stable and the jockey beats it, the jockey is responsible to the racehorse trainer but not to the owner. The jockey—''jockey'' might be the wrong word, as it could be somebody else—would therefore be liable. Is that right?

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying that. Funnily enough, racehorses were one of the examples that I was thinking about in which ownership of the offspring is not necessarily the same as ownership of the mare or parent animal.

The Minister's point about clause 8 is important. As I said in my opening comments, my amendments are designed to clarify matters for the good people who look after their animals, not just the people who commit offences. We do not really want the draft legislation to be tested in court; we want people to understand what their obligations are when they read it. My amendments set out to clarify what will happen when people go away and it is not so clear-cut that one can say, ''Look, the animal is clearly in your care—it's your animal, you're responsible for it.''

The example that I am dying to bring in is my own case. Every week I come to the House to look after the welfare of my constituents, while my neighbour looks after my chickens. He is effectively responsible for them when I am not there, but I own them.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The cows are different. They are owned partly by me and partly by Mrs. Spreckley. She looks after them in the winter when I am not there.

The point is that the duty of care and the duty of ownership should go hand in hand. Problems arise when they do not, and my amendments sought to keep   them together. I am content that the Minister has said enough to clarify that we need to consider clause 8 for the real details of the responsibility that should go hand in hand with ownership. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.