Clause 4 - Unnecessary suffering

Animal Welfare Bill – in a Public Bill Committee on 17th January 2006.

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Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 98, in clause 4, page 3, line 4, at end insert—

'(3A) For the purposes of this section, an act of abandonment shall be considered to be a form of unnecessary suffering.

(3B) In this section, ''abandonment'' is to mean when an animal protected under this Act is, without lawful reason or excuse, deliberately discharged from the control of man without any future provisions for care being established.'.—[Bill Wiggin.]

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

Photo of Joan Humble Joan Humble Labour, Blackpool North and Fleetwood 4:00 pm, 17th January 2006

I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing amendment No. 14, in clause 8, page 4, line 29, at end insert—

'(3A) If an animal has been abandoned, any person who immediately before that time was a keeper of the animal shall continue to be a keeper of the animal for the purpose of this section until another person becomes keeper of it.'.

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

I welcome you, Mrs. Humble, to your role as co-Chair. I was explaining why the Government felt that it was not necessary to have a specific reference in the Bill to abandonment. That was partly because the act of abandonment could lead to prosecution under the welfare offence. It could also lead to prosecution under the cruelty offence, and the Government felt that, in line with our better regulation agenda, this was not necessary.

Photo of Greg Mulholland Greg Mulholland Shadow Minister (International Development)

I have a simple question, then I promise to shut up for at least an hour on this issue. Does the Minister not agree that abandonment in itself is a bad thing, regardless of what may or may not happen to the animal afterwards? Surely there should be a reference to abandonment on the face of the Bill.

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

I certainly agree—this is a point that I have made on a number of occasions—that abandonment is an offence under the Bill and remains an offence if the welfare needs of the animal are jeopardised by the activity or if suffering occurs. But as I was beginning to explain when we adjourned, there is considerable difficulty in defining abandonment in a way that deals with some of the scenarios that I was describing.

Clause 4 is an attempt to move away from approach taken by the 1911 Act, which was to have list of activities that are offences, and to replace it with a general all-embracing offence of causing unnecessary suffering. While I understand that the act of abandoning an animal is a cause for concern, I do not see that it merits specific mention any more than   beating, kicking, punching, infuriating, or any of the other the actions listed in the 1911 Act. Furthermore, the implication of amendment No. 98, would be that abandoning an animal is always an offence under clause 4. That is not always the case, which highlights the problems of definition which I mentioned a moment ago.

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

I have been listening carefully to what the Minister has said on both occasions, and I am grateful for a second chance. I understood that if the animal was abandoned and subsequently injured itself, that would be cruelty however that injury occurs. But if the animal were simply abandoned, that would be a failure under the duty of care. That seems to be rather an unfortunate choice for the courts to prosecute.

With an all-embracing piece of legislation, such as the 1911 Act, there was only one charge—cruelty. Now that there are two charges, we need to know how they will be defined. A person who abandons a cat at the side of a motorway hoping that it will be run over, is clearly much nastier and sicker and determined to cause injury, and should be prosecuted for cruelty, than a person whose cat simply wanders off never to return because he has shut the cat flap and forgotten about it, or one who commits all sorts of other minor, human mistakes that could well be abandonment. The definition is quite critical. I am keen to see how the Minister will separate the two things.

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

The hon. Gentleman acknowledges the fact that this Bill is expanding the scope of abandonment being an offence, since under the 1911 Act suffering had to occur before any offence had been committed, whereas under the Bill if an animal is abandoned and its welfare needs are not being met, that too is an offence.

With the greatest respect to hon. Members, I think that amendment No. 14 is misguided. A person who abandons an animal, and fails to make reasonable provision for its welfare needs at the point of abandonment, commits an offence under clause 8. However, to amend the Bill so that the person continues to be responsible for the animal or animals indefinitely would be unenforceable and impractical. Let me give an example. If I released a fish into a river—as I have already noted, it is difficult exclude that from a definition of abandonment—it would be surprising if I were considered responsible for it until it happened to be caught by an angler in a year's time. Equally, if I released my game birds, it would be unfortunate if I were still considered responsible for them when they were shot two months later. On any view, I have ceased to be responsible for the day-to-day care of the animals in both those examples, and it would not be sensible to extend the Bill so that I was considered to be responsible.

In short, Madam Chairwoman, the act of abandoning an animal is still an offence under the Bill. We make no explicit provision for it because we do not want to make the Bill any longer or more complex than it has to be, and such a provision would add nothing. However, that in no way downgrades the offence. The same penalties are available under the Bill as under the Abandonment of Animals Act 1960 if the   animal is caused unnecessary suffering. Indeed, as I mentioned, the Bill makes an additional layer of protection available, because the welfare offence in clause 8 makes possible early intervention to prevent suffering. On that basis, I urge hon. Members to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Joan Humble Joan Humble Labour, Blackpool North and Fleetwood

Order. Before I call Mr. Wiggin, let me say that although it is perfectly proper to call me Madam Chairwoman, I prefer to be called Mrs. Humble, and I hope that hon. Members will bear that in mind in future.

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

Thank you, Mrs. Humble—no sooner said than done.

The Minister replied as he should have done, but he did not address the fundamental problem—the two separate aspects of the Bill. We have cruelty offences and welfare failures, so we have two separate potential crimes, and the difficulty is knowing whether to prosecute for one or the other. The prison sentences are not that different, but the fines are, so it is important to establish which sort of abandonment has taken place. The Minister has not dealt with that problem sufficiently, but it would not be difficult for him to ensure that there were guidelines on what constituted cruel abandonment and what constituted a failure in the duty of care. If he could do that, I would be happy that we had dealt with this important aspect of animal welfare.

I recognise what the Minister said about trying to keep the Bill simple and straightforward, but anyone who has seen what happens to abandoned animals will want the problem to be put right in the Bill. I was hoping that the Minister would nod at that point. None the less, we shall return to the issue on Report. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

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

I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mrs. Humble. As I indicated to Mr. Gale, I want to raise one small point about unnecessary suffering, because it does not come up anywhere else and no amendments have been tabled on it.

I should like the Minister to say something about horse racing. It has been put to me that there might be a case for suggesting that the use of the whip in horse races constitutes unnecessary suffering as it is entirely avoidable. It is gratuitous to use the whip, because if no jockeys used it, they would all be equally disadvantaged. The issue was raised with me, and it is important that we have a ministerial response on the record.

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

If I am wrong about this, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman, but my understanding is that, as regards whipping horses, it is in theory possible under existing legislation to bring a prosecution on the basis of cruelty. I am not aware that there has been such a case, but the status quo would remain under the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.