Clause 27 - Time Limits for prosecutions

Animal Welfare Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 6:30 pm on 24th January 2006.

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

I beg to move amendment No. 210, in clause 27, page 13, line 13, leave out paragraph (a) and insert—

‘(a)before the end of the period of twelve months beginning with the date of commission of the offence, and’.

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

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 56, in clause 27, page 13, line 18, leave out subsection (2).

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

The amendment seeks to change the period from three years to 12 months. It harks back to something I said a while ago on clause 21, about the length of time that people may be expected to keep records. We are talking about seeking to ensure that offenders are dealt with promptly, and interventions are made in the interests of the animal. The Bill, as a whole, concerns alleged harm to an animal’s welfare and therefore, potentially, actual suffering. In that case, it is important to begin proceedings as soon as possible. To allow a prosecutor three years suggests a lack of urgency.

The Bill will also mean that anyone caring for an animal—whether a pet owner, pet business, sanctuary, hobby or club—must keep records to ensure that they have fulfilled their duty of care. For a pet business routinely to keep all of its paperwork is an enormous practical burden. The vast majority of English and Welsh pet shops, of which I think there are 10,000—with the kennels, catteries and grooming salons—are micro-businesses employing fewer than five people. Yet over a three-year period those 10,000 will care for many hundreds of thousands of animals. While almost half of such businesses have a computer, most keep their routine check-sheets manually and work from premises with limited office space. That paper storage would pose something of a logistical challenge.

For pet owners, the challenge will be to diarise their pet-care routine, keeping vets’ bills and similar documentation that can be considered contemporaneous. Most pet owners do not, at present, do that. To ask them to do so for a full three years seems unnecessarily burdensome. The European Court of Human Rights has indicated that a delay of two years in bringing a case may be in breach of the convention, as memory is likely to fade beyond that period.

If an animal is an exhibit in a case, and belongs to the person likely to be prosecuted, keeping it in custody for up to three years—which I think the Minister talked about earlier today—may be unnecessarily cruel. Indeed, that three-year period exceeds the total life expectancy of some animals, especially small ones. When we consider the overall importance of the Bill and the points that I have raised, it seems only appropriate that the time scale is altered.

The intention of amendment No. 56 is to safeguard the rights of the defendant to receive a fair trial—principally, when there has been a significant time-lag between the alleged offences taking place and the prosecutors deciding to proceed. There is in the Bill an   implicit onus on the defendant to prove that the prosecution team may have known about the alleged offences for more than six months prior to commencing that prosecution.

I am of the opinion that the onus should always be on the prosecution to prove their case, which is why I tabled the amendment. That is particularly important when we consider that, in private prosecutions, it is possible for the evidence gatherers in a case to be the same group of people as the prosecutors. Although I appreciate that subsection (2) makes provision for a prosecutor to sign a certificate authenticating the date, I am not sure whether that will be good enough.

First, there is no way of knowing for certain that the certificate has been made on that date. Secondly, possibilities for fraud exist, especially when we consider that under subsection (2)(a) it is possible for someone other than the prosecutor to sign such a certificate on his or her behalf. Thirdly, in such circumstances, which are currently prescribed, our judiciary will be expected to rely on a mere signed certificate as sufficient proof. Although the amendment will dispense with the need for prosecutors to sign certificates, it will still place an implicit emphasis on them to be able to prove their dates. It will also urge prosecutors to prosecute more effectively, swiftly and justly.

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

As the hon. Gentleman has indicated, the clause would extend the time limit for prosecuting an offence under the Bill beyond the limit that would normally apply under the Magistrates’ Court Act 1980. We have done that because enforcers have told us that with animal welfare offences it is often some time before an offence against an animal comes to light, and that can lead to difficulties bringing prosecutions under the current law. Often, an alleged offender cannot be prosecuted because once the evidence against him or her emerges, the case is time-barred. Amendment No. 210 would seek to reduce that time limit considerably.

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

I have a genuine question. The Minister has obviously given the issue a great deal of thought. Can he give us examples, on the matter to which he has just referred, of the evidence in such cases regarding animals? Most of us would assume that animal cruelty is quite obvious almost immediately after it occurs. Will he give some examples of where the two-year period would not be sufficient?

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 and other hon. Members will have had some rather stomach-churning examples drawn to their attention by animal welfare organisations; for example, the discovery of many emaciated dead animals that died long, painful deaths and had been stored in somebody’s freezer. Because that discovery happened some time after the offence had occurred, it was not possible, under current law, to prosecute that case. That sort of thing has been drawn to our attention and has made us think that the provision is justified. I will deal, in a minute, with the safeguards that we have included in the drafting.

Another reason we have chosen the three-year period is that it is the same as the one included in the Animal Health Act 2002, which extended the time limit in the Animal Health Act 1981 to three years, but with a six-month limitation, once the prosecutor becomes aware of sufficient evidence. It is sensible to impose the same time limit for prosecutions of welfare offences as for those relating to animal health.

Amendment No. 56 concerns the operation of the six-month limitation. Once the prosecutor becomes aware of the evidence the question is whether he should have to prove that he has not had the evidence available to him for more than six months, or whether a certification by him that he has not had the evidence available should be treated as conclusive. There are sound reasons for the approach that we have chosen.

First, it could be difficult and potentially hugely burdensome for a prosecutor to prove that he or she was not aware of the evidence—we would be asking them to prove a negative. In the absence of subsection (2), there is a risk that well-founded prosecutions could become sidetracked into arguments about when exactly evidence of the offence came to light and when exactly a decision was taken about the sufficiency of that evidence. That would waste the time and resources of the courts and the parties involved. Again, I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the 2002 Act, which contains the same time limits that we propose here. It also treats the certificate of a prosecutor as conclusive. We are not aware that that has caused any difficulties in that legislation. On that basis, I urge the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) to withdraw the amendment.

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

I am worried that the Minister is trying to have his cake and eat it. On the one hand, he wants a very long period in which offences can be prosecuted, but on the other, he is not happy for the prosecutor to mark the time at which the evidence has become clear. I objected to that during consideration of the Animal Health Bill because I had grave reservations about it. I am comforted to some extent that the problem has not become a major one, but there is a risk.

I am content to withdraw my amendment at this stage, but I reserve the right to return to the matter on Report if necessary. We have to be clear about the sort of offences we wish to prosecute, and what the Minister has said so far indicates that the Bill is not designed to escalate the number of prosecutions. However, this aspect of the Bill is designed to do exactly that, which runs rather contrary to what we have heard so far. The Minister should think about the three-year period; it widens the opportunity for prosecution. I understand why he wants to do that, but in the same vein, there should be clarity about when the prosecution has the evidence and wishes to begin. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 27 ordered to stand part of the Bill.