Clause 16 - Powers in relation to animals in distress

Animal Welfare Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:00 am on 24th January 2006.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 11:00 am, 24th January 2006

I beg to move amendment No. 173, in clause 16, page 8, line 28, leave out subsection (4).

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 67, in clause 16, page 9, line 12, at end insert—

‘(8A)When using any of the powers granted under this section, constables, inspectors and veterinary surgeons shall take such biosecurity measures as are necessary to protect the environment from disease.’.

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

Again, this is a probing amendment. It seeks to clarify the powers of inspectors and constables to end the life of animals in distress. There seems to be a contradiction: subsection (2) acknowledges that constables and inspectors are not qualified to make crucial decisions about the life or death of animals, but subsection (4) permits them to do so. I appreciate that in some circumstances it may be more humane to put the animal down on the spot.

In most circumstances, as stated in subsection (3)(a), only a veterinary surgeon should be able to make a life or death decision. An animal may need urgently to be put down if it has been run over by a car. However, as the Bill is not completely clear on the subject, the contradiction to which I alluded remains, and I would be grateful if the Minister clarified matters. It is important, because one cannot, for example, fire a gun near the edge of a road, so the quickest and kindest way of putting down a deer that has been hit by a car is illegal.

Amendment No. 67 states:

“When using any of the powers granted under this section, constables, inspectors and veterinary surgeons shall take such biosecurity measures as are necessary to protect the environment from disease.”

That would be ridiculous in the example that I just gave, but I have noticed that the state veterinary service takes great trouble with biosecurity if there is a suspected outbreak of some notifiable disease. People will remember that during the foot and mouth outbreak those who were trying to slaughter sheep frightened them to such an extent that they jumped out of the field and infected the next farm, thus widening the need to cull contiguously; indeed, that happened even in my constituency.

We therefore need to ensure that constables, inspectors and veterinary surgeons abide by the legal and biosecurity precautions, which I believe may already be on the statute book and which are obviously extremely important in such situations, when they deal with these sorts of problems.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud 11:15 am, 24th January 2006

I have very little to add to what the hon. Gentleman says, except to urge some caution in the wording of subsection (4) because it gives an awful lot of power to someone who wants, humanely, one hopes, to destroy an animal. It is implied that a veterinary surgeon will be called in, but I want it to be clear that a veterinary surgeon will be called to attend even after an animal has been humanely put down, just to prove that destroying it was justifiable.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I want to pick up the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster touched on tangentially. I had hoped to table an amendment, which would in fact have fitted into the group of probing amendments tabled by my hon. Friend, relating to road traffic accidents, which, unfortunately quite frequently nowadays, involve deer.

My understanding of the Bill and conversations with the Minister lead me to believe that a deer that has been injured and is lying on the verge comes within the   ambit of the Bill because there is clearly an issue of how it is cared for and how its condition is resolved. If the Minister tells me that such a case would be outside the ambit of the Bill, that would partly resolve the matter, but my understanding is that at that stage it would be protected by the Bill, just as an animal caught in a trap is protected by the Bill. That can, of course, also apply to dogs or indeed to any animal, even, sadly, to horses on occasion these days.

These accidents can be quite horrendous. An animal can be very seriously wounded. I do not want to be gory, but bones can protrude. That sort of thing is quite clearly beyond veterinary help and recovery. A wild animal such as a deer would almost certainly never recover because of the trauma. I understand the purpose of subsection (4) and the need to destroy the animal humanely and as quickly as possible to put it out of its suffering.

The point on which my hon. Friend touched is very important, because inevitably after a road traffic accident, the animal is lying on the road or, more often, on the verge. It is an offence to use a firearm within, I believe, 30 m—

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Within 50 m of the road. It is certainly not possible to use a firearm on the verge. The Minister is listening, which I appreciate, and he may want to go away and think about this. There have already been many cases in which people who are licensed to have a rifle have been called to a scene, but have said that they will not shoot the deer, not because it does not need to be shot but because they cannot fire their rifle in that situation without contravening firearms legislation. The animal has to suffer for much longer before someone comes along with an humane killer, which is the only thing that one can use in such a location.

There is an issue about whether the officer who sees that the animal is clearly in immense distress and needs to be put out of its suffering as quickly as possible, should be able to authorise someone who lawfully owns a weapon that would do the job to use it then and there. There is also an issue about the type of weapon that can be used. There are firearms that are not approved by law for the killing of deer, such as a shotgun, which is clearly not appropriate in the field. But a shotgun at point-blank range is an extremely lethal weapon and it could be used perfectly satisfactorily to put an animal out of its suffering.

Perhaps the Minister will want to talk to his colleagues in the Home Office about this. The country and sporting press report a number of occasions on which licensed stalkers, gamekeepers and so on were on hand to dispatch an injured animal, but would not do it because they feared that they would be breaking the law and might lose their firearms certificate. One may argue that that would be an unreasonable act by a chief constable, but it happens and people are right to be concerned. There is the issue of the humane treatment of a seriously injured animal, and I hope that the Minister will take it on board.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

Can the Minister clarify the law as it stands at the moment, and as it may be changed by the Bill, with regard to road kill? For many of our constituents these will be some of the most distressing circumstances in which they are directly faced with an issue of animal welfare. Who is responsible for the welfare of an animal that is hit by a car and is lying injured by the side of the road? Does that responsibility change depending on what kind of animal it is? Does it have to be a protected animal as defined by clause 2? Is there a distinction between domesticated and feral cats? Could the Minister also clarify the duty of members of the public to report an animal injured in a road accident? I am sure that this is an area of huge confusion for the great British public. This may be an appropriate opportunity to explain the law 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)

I shall first address the points made by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) about whether someone could be criminalised for humanely dispatching a deer that had been hit by a car. My oral advice from my officials is that that person could not be prosecuted if they had dispatched the animal, regardless of what the law says about where they are allowed to use a weapon. I will talk to my Home Office colleagues about this. The hon. Gentleman made a good point. If an animal is clearly suffering and someone, such as a farmer, has the means to dispatch it humanely, it would seem to me and to most members of the Committee unreasonable that he could be prosecuted for carrying out a humane act. My advice is that he could not be prosecuted, but I will seek clarification in writing on the hon. Gentleman’s behalf.

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

Subsection (8) states:

“A person acting under subsection (7)(b)(i), or under an arrangement under that provision, may make use of any equipment on the premises.”

If the equipment on the premises was a gun, even if it was close to the road, the Minister might have a get-out there. It might be helpful if that was clarified.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am grateful to the Minister. I agree that common sense would dictate that what he said is right, but the issue is not just prosecutions; it is also whether the person could lose their firearms certificate. A person does not have to have been prosecuted for a chief constable to decide to remove their firearms certificate. If the chief constable has reason to believe that the gun has been used improperly, or if a caution has been given, the certificate can still be lost. Firearms certificates are for many people who live in the country an instrument of livelihood, and they are understandably extremely concerned about what is proposed. I am grateful that the Minister is to investigate further.

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

On the point that was made by the hon. Member for Kettering, I hope that he will forgive me, but I do not, off the top of my head, recall the rules on responsibility for people who knock down different sorts of animals. He is right in thinking that they vary   depending on whether they are domesticated pets or wild animals. I shall obtain clarification for him before the end of today, if that is acceptable to him.

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

Will the Minister also clarify the role of local authorities? Obviously, London is a very busy place, and if an animal were knocked over at the side of a red route, for example, an RSPCA officer might be required to come and collect it. I understand that at present the RSPCA must contribute to the congestion charge. Would the Mayor have some responsibility for the removal of the animal?

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

That sounds like a rather more complex question, to which I may not be able to obtain an answer by the end of the day, but I shall endeavour to get one before the Committee’s proceedings finish at, we hope, the end of the week.

On the general issue, I hope that I can reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) that we are talking about an exceptional case in which a vet has been called. The clause makes it clear that in the vast majority of cases an animal may be dispatched only by a vet, or if there is a vet’s certificate. However, several hon. Members have drawn attention to cases such as a road traffic accident after which an animal is clearly suffering, but the vet is unable to arrive in time and the person concerned has the necessary means and, indeed, the courage to do the deed. Most people, unless they were brought up in the country, like me, find the idea of putting an animal down humanely quite difficult. We are trying to avoid making it a criminal offence to act in that way because a vet could not get there in time. On that basis I ask the hon. Member for Leominster not to press his amendment.

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

Amendment No. 173 is intended to identify the circumstances in which a vet would not be required. We can clearly understand those that relate to a road accident. Obviously one would not need to wait for a vet if an animal was thrashing around in agony. However, there are other occasions on which a vet might or might not be required. I need to tease out more information from the Government.

We have all read about the houses where mad people collect huge numbers of animals and do not look after them properly, so that a certain number must then be put to sleep. We understand about that, but in those situations there is often time for a vet to inspect them properly. It is not clear from the clause how the two types of case will differ from each other. We can make up illustrative examples in Committee, but at some stage someone will turn up and say, “Actually, they should have called a vet. The animal would not have been in any more agony if it had waited,” and that will have to be tested in law. If we could get something from the Minister now that might not be necessary.

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

The case that the hon. Gentleman has outlined, involving someone who for whatever reason has a house full of animals that are suffering, would clearly require, under the Bill, the attendance of a vet to certify the putting down of the animals. Perhaps one could imagine, although it might be difficult, a case in which neglect meant it was not   possible to wait 10 or 20 minutes for a vet to arrive. The case that I should consider relevant, and which Committee members have also considered relevant, is the one in which an animal has been hit by a car and is suffering badly in the middle of the countryside somewhere. It might not be possible for a vet to arrive for an hour or so. It is not in the spirit of the Bill, and nor should it be in the letter of the law, to insist that that animal should suffer terribly for another hour.

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

I am grateful to the Minister. I think that if the owner of the animal is present and says, “Don’t destroy my animal. Don’t kill this animal; please get a vet first,” it is clear that the inspector should proceed with a vet, but if that does not happen and the animal is obviously suffering, those concerned should proceed in the way set out in the Bill. Now that I have put that clearly, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment proposed: No. 135, in clause 16, page 9, line 2, at end insert—

‘()The power conferred by subsection (5) includes power to take into possession dependent offspring of an animal taken into possession under that subsection.’. —Mr. Bradshaw.]

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Government amendment No. 136.

Amendment No. 61, in clause 29, page 14, line 19, after ‘offspring’, insert

‘or any offspring it is carrying in utero’.

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

I think that amendment No. 135 is where the Government include baby animals, which is a tremendous improvement and something we asked for earlier in the Bill’s consideration. In fact, I took an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), or someone did, in that debate. We welcome the amendment, ensuring that baby or dependent animals are also taken into consideration. That is positive. I am grateful to the Government for being so flexible and for listening.

Amendment agreed to.

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

I beg to move amendment No. 174, in clause 16, page 9, line 12, at end insert—

‘(8A)For the purposes of subsection (7)(c), the appropriate national authority may by regulations make provision for the method by which an animal may be marked for identification purposes.’.

The amendment is about when an animal is in distress and, for the purposes of practicality, it may be necessary to identify it at a later date. Marking would therefore be a sensible course of action to take.

With regard to the clipping of cats’ ears, I understand that if someone owned a number of cats and a small number of them appeared to be mistreated, marking them for the purpose of identification may be necessary. If the mistreated cats were marked, locating them in the future would be easier. The amendment enables the Government to make appropriate   regulations for that to happen. The amendment is not particularly complicated so I hope that the Government will accept it.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

I am intrigued to know who has the right to mark an animal, which may be done for justifiable reasons. With that in mind, what level of marking are we talking about? Are we talking about microchipping or branding an animal? Are we talking about marking by cutting the ear of an animal? What is the purpose of marking and who is able to do it? In a sense, marking indicates a change of ownership, and there may be reasons why that change is necessary. I want clarification from my hon. Friend the Minister why, how and who can do this.

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

The amendment would allow the appropriate national authority to make regulations specifying how an animal may be marked if it has been taken into possession because it was suffering or likely to suffer. The Government believe that the amendment is not necessary. It would be too burdensome at this stage to lay down detailed provisions about the best way to mark animals taken into possession.

Marking an animal taken into possession will not always be necessary. For example, a single dog or cat might identified adequately simply by their wearing a collar. That would not constitute marking for the purposes of clause 16(7)(c). If cattle were taken into possession, they should already be wearing ear tags and, therefore, would already be marked. However, if, for example, a herd of pigs were taken into possession, there might be a need to mark each animal.

In a majority of such cases, the constable or inspector would be able to draw on his or her experience and knowledge of the best way to mark an animal. If necessary, there are already suitable sources of information and advice available, such as the state veterinary service or the RSPCA. However, if experience after the Bill comes into force shows that further guidance is necessary, I am confident that power to issue such guidance is already given by the Bill. For example, clause 12 allows for the appropriate national authority to issue a code of practice

“for the purpose of providing practical guidance in respect of any provision made by or under this Act.”

Further, clause 10 allows the appropriate national authority to make

“regulations ... for the purpose of promoting the welfare of animals for which a person is responsible”.

Therefore, the Bill already allows for regulations of a type that this amendment envisages.

I hope the hon. Members will also have been reassured by the debates that we had on clause 5. Although not all methods of marking an animal would constitute a mutilation, those that are mutilations and that are unacceptable will be prohibited by clause 5. On the basis of that, I urge the hon. Member for Leominster to withdraw the amendment.

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

That is a great deal clearer, and I am grateful to the Minister. As I have no reason to press it, I beg to seek leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

I beg to move amendment No. 68, in clause 16, page 9, line 15, at end insert—

‘(9A)A person acting under subsections (1) and (3) to (9) must, if appropriate, take all reasonable steps to notify the owner of, or person responsible for, any animal of their actions.’.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 69, in clause 16, page 9, line 18, after ‘incurs’, insert ‘reasonable’.

No. 71, in clause 18, page 10, line 16, leave out

‘it is not reasonably practicable’ and insert

‘reasonable endeavours have been made’.

No. 53, in clause 18, page 10, line 25, after ‘reimburse’, insert ‘reasonable’.

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

Amendment No. 68 would ensure that efforts are made to inform an animal’s owner if any powers under the clause are being used. At present, the clause does not distinguish between animals that are in distress because of the actions of their owner and animals that are in distress accidentally. A person who is responsible for causing an animal distress must be dealt with accordingly and the animal must be treated. However, if an animal has found itself suffering through an accident—for instance, a cat getting caught on a fence or being run over—it is only right and proper that the owner is contacted if possible and has a say in the pet’s treatment. If an owner has not committed an offence, they should determine the treatment that their pet receives, especially if it involves putting the animal down. The amendment would therefore safeguard the responsible owner’s right to make responsible decisions about the care of their animals.

Amendment No. 69 would ensure that excessive financial charges are not placed on someone whose animal has been treated or destroyed when no offence has taken place. The clause enables inspectors and constables to take measures to alleviate an animal’s suffering if it is found to be in distress and financially to charge the owner accordingly, regardless of whether an offence has taken place. When an offence has taken place, the offender must be expected to pay. However, it is possible that an owner may not be aware that their animal is in distress.

For instance, if an owner lets their cat roam, they cannot be expected to supervise it at all times. Nevertheless, through its own misadventure, that cat could sustain an injury and require treatment. In those circumstances, when the owner is innocent of any offence, under subsection (11) he could still be made to feel like a criminal. Therefore, the amendment would safeguard an owner’s interests by ensuring that over-zealous inspectors will not receive undue awards when there is no award to claim.

Amendment No. 71 would place a duty on the courts to ensure that an animal owner’s rights are not infringed. Under clause 18, an owner who acts responsibly towards their animal may still have it taken away from their care without their knowing—for instance, if they are away from home and another person who is supposed to be responsible for the animal has not been responsible. It is right that, in   these and similar circumstances, the animal’s well-being is given priority. Nevertheless, those who have taken over the animal’s care should still take positive steps to find the animal’s owner. I am concerned that the words that

“it is not reasonably practicable” contains an inherent negativity whereby efforts to contact the owner may not even be made. However, the amendment would ensure that at least efforts are made to contact the owner and include them in a decision about the animal’s future.

As with amendment No. 69, amendment No. 53 is designed to ensure that excessive financial charges are not laid against someone whose animal has been treated or destroyed under clause 18, especially when that person is not guilty of an offence. The Bill rightly gives inspectors and constables the power to take appropriate measures to alleviate an animal’s suffering, and it is appropriate that those costs are recoverable. Nevertheless, some people have expressed concern that there may be occasions when over-zealous officers or persons give that animal expensive treatment, which the owner, who has not committed an offence, may not be able to afford to pay. Furthermore, the cost of such treatment may be more than is necessary. The amendment would ensure that the costs are reasonable and proportionate to the treatment and it would prevent excessive charging. I can think of an example where a cat is very old. To take it through an advanced operation may be the most inappropriate treatment, but if one has not spoken to the owner, one would not necessarily know that. That is what we seek to safeguard.

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

If the hon. Gentleman is agreeable, I would like to give the issue raised in amendment No. 68 further consideration. We are not wholly convinced that the amendment as drafted would work, but if he would agree to withdraw it, I will contact him before Report with a considered view of the Government’s position.

I turn to amendments Nos. 69 and 53 that aim at ensuring that the court will order only the reimbursement of reasonable expenses incurred while a person carries out its orders. That point was addressed in the Government response to the EFRA Select Committee, so I shall deal with it briefly. A court is a public body and, as such, is obliged to act reasonably. We believe there is no need to include a provision in the Bill to stress that again.

On amendment No. 71, regarding the clarification that must be met before a court can order disposal of an animal under clause 18 without hearing from the owner, the proposal is a matter of drafting preference. The essential point of clause 18(3) is that, unless there is good reason to do otherwise, an animal’s owner must be heard before its fate is determined. The current drafting uses a “reasonably practicable” test that is well established in law and, we believe, more than adequate to meet the needs of the situation in question. If it is not “reasonably practicable” to communicate with the owner, there is little point in obliging a prosecutor to endeavour to do so. The amendment, by requiring the applicant to show that he   had indeed made reasonable endeavours to contact the owner, may result in unreasonable expense and delay during such endeavours. We are not convinced of the need to employ a different test in that case. On that basis—and bearing in mind what I said about amendment No. 68—I urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.

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

We have already seen the Government bring forward amendments that were perhaps better drafted than my amendment No. 61. I take seriously the point made by the Minister about amendment No. 68, and am more than happy to withdraw it. As a Committee, we have been working together positively for the benefit of animal welfare.

I also take on board the important points that the Minister made about reasonableness. When a judge is about to award a huge amount of money—perhaps erroneously given that the owner has committed no offence—he will look back on the Minister’s words and recognise that he must be reasonable. There was concern about how clerks to the magistrates courts would interpret, say, the size of fines and other parts of the Bill. They will now know that the Minister expects them to be reasonable, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 16, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.