Clause 26 - Power of local authority to prosecute offences

Animal Welfare Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 6:15 pm on 24th January 2006.

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Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 6:15 pm, 24th January 2006

I beg to move amendment No. 212, in clause 26, page 13, line 8, at end insert—

‘(2)Proceedings for a crime under this Act shall not be instituted except by or with the consent of the Crown Prosecution Service or the legal department of a local authority.’.

The amendment is relatively small but quite important. Hon. Members from both sides of the House realise that, whatever our support for the Bill and subject to further proceedings, we are approving some major powers to deal with major allegations of animal cruelty and—if convicted—offences against animal welfare. In those circumstances, there should rightly be some checks and balances to ensure that there is no vexatious litigation for whatever purposes.

The purpose of the amendment is to try to bring English law into line with what we understand to be the conventions in Scottish law. The Bill contains no checks on prosecutions. The clause allows a local authority to prosecute proceedings for any offence under this legislation. Whatever one’s views of local authorities, they are not necessarily the right people to decide whether a clear offence has taken place. Private prosecutions might also take place prior to the commencement of any official prosecution by a local authority. We could make accusations of a violation   by the Minister or any other member of the Committee, regardless of whether we as individuals had any real expertise or the professionalism necessary to make that accusation. In view of the extensive powers of entry and other powers granted by the legislation, including the power to disqualify people who are convicted from continuing to own animals, it is important that there is some oversight of prosecutions.

A well established part of English law is that where there are such extensive powers, there should be some limit on who can begin proceedings, without interfering with the right of private persons to do so. That is why we are suggesting that the Crown Prosecution Service or the legal department of a local authority should agree to any proceedings. I understand that, in Scotland, prosecutions for offences relating to animal welfare are taken through on behalf of the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals by the procurator fiscal. That enables there to be an effective check on those prosecutions to ensure that time is not wasted and that they are sound. Obviously, the procurator fiscal would not take them forward if his professional opinion was that they were not sound. Amendment No. 212 is simply intended to bring English law into line with Scottish law.

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

As we have already discussed in Committee, the Bill is intended to be a common informers Act under which anyone—a private individual or an organisation—can take forward a prosecution if he or she thinks that they have the necessary evidence. That is not new or surprising. Since the 19th century, animal protection legislation has been enforced by the vigilance of private individuals and organisations, of which the RSPCA has been the most conspicuous example. The amendment would substantially fetter the existing right of private individuals or non-state organisations to launch prosecutions. In each case, as the hon. Gentleman has just said, prior consent would have to be gained from the Crown Prosecution Service or a local authority legal department.

We anticipate that most of the day-to-day enforcement work relating to pet animals under the Bill will continue to be carried out by the RSPCA. It has a long-established expertise in both the investigation and the prosecution of cases involving animal welfare. We believe that to fetter its rights as a common informer in the manner suggested would put an unreasonable burden on both the Crown Prosecution Service and local authorities, while not yielding any improvement in animal welfare. The RSPCA currently undertakes some 1,500 prosecutions a year. The fact that 97 per cent. of its prosecutions are successful suggests that its general approach is justified.

I have every confidence that the RSPCA will apply the same prudence to prosecutions under the new welfare offence as it does to prosecutions under existing powers. However, let me reassure the Committee that there are already several safeguards in our system to guard against inappropriate prosecutions. The Director of Public Prosecutions has   the right to intervene if a prosecution has been inappropriately taken forward, the courts have the power to make cost orders to punish a party that pursues unjustified proceedings, and any individual has the right to bring a civil claim for malicious prosecution. We do not believe that there is evidence to suggest that the current system is failing defendants, the wider interests of society or the welfare of animals. In that light, I urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

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

I am grateful to the Minister for his response. He is right that to say that there are fall-backs for individuals who feel that they have been unfairly prosecuted. They include the courts’ awarding costs.

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

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: there are the safeguards that the Minister touched on. However, there is a big difference between an individual—in most cases, the prosecutions will be against individuals—and a charity or an organisation. If an individual is fined by the court, that person pays the fine. If someone works for a charity and the charity is fined, that person does not pay the fine; the charity does. The balance is different, and I wonder whether the Minister has really addressed that.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 6:30 pm, 24th January 2006

My hon. Friend makes an important point. This has cropped up on many occasions and the Minister himself referred to it earlier, so I know that he is very conscious of concern that the Bill gives the RSPCA a much greater role, shall we say, in animal welfare. The Minister has repeatedly said, quite correctly, that the Bill does not extend the RSPCA’s powers at all, but there is concern at that greater role. Clearly, because we are creating a whole raft of new offences, with the duty of care and so on, one would expect the number of prosecutions to rise from that 1,500. It would be wholly improper to stand here and suggest that the RSPCA, or anyone else, brings unnecessary prosecutions. The statistics that the Minister has just used show quite the contrary. Nevertheless, there is concern.

The purpose in tabling the amendment was to try to draw out the sort of points just made by the Minister—to illustrate and, I hope, to allay those concerns. Most of the Committee recognises that the concerns exist, rightly or wrongly, in some sectors of society involved with animals. I am grateful for what the Minister has said and hope that he is indeed proved right, in that neither the RSPCA nor anyone else commences unnecessary prosecutions. In light of that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 26 ordered to stand part of the Bill.