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Clause 28 - Imprisonment or fine

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. 158, in clause 28, page 13, line 34, leave out from

‘exceeding’ to end and insert £20,000’.

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

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 157, in clause 28, page 13, line 35, at end insert—

‘(2A)When a person guilty of an offence is imprisoned under subsection (1)(a) or subsection (2)(a), they shall not be eligible for early release through a “custody plus order” under Chapter 44 section 181(4) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003.’.

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

The amendment would ensure that punishments for offences committed under the legislation are consistent. While I appreciate that the maximum punishment a magistrates court can impose will be applied to those who have committed offences under clauses 4, 5, 6 and 7, I would like the sanction to be available for those to be punished under duty of care offences under clause 8—I am not sure that I agree with my notes on this.

I acknowledge that the decision to impose the maximum £20,000 fine will no doubt seldom be used, and presumably only in the most serious of cases. It is important that the Committee makes it clear that fines should not always be of the maximum size or just under; they should be considered. Magistrates should have the opportunity to sanction fines that exceed the £500 maximum for the other offences specified in subsection (2)(b).

The offences under clause 11(6) that deal with licensing and registration will be covered, so it would surely make sense to ensure that the maximum £20,000 fine could be made available to magistrates as well. After all, it is quite probable that businesses will be affected by the legislation, and I would like sufficient deterrents in place to ensure that businesses caring for our animals are ensuring their welfare.

My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire raised the matter with the Secretary of State on Second Reading, but she did not justify the present position. She stated:

“If the hon. Gentleman looks at the legislation that the Bill replaces, he will see that there were similar differences. These are issues that can be explored in Committee. If the House feels that a change should be made, no doubt that can be considered.”—[Official Report, 10 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 169.]

Here we are, considering it. As we are here to update the existing legislation and bring it into line with today’s standards, as the Secretary of State and Minister have frequently pointed out, it is only logical that we do not rely on 20th-century punitive measures for 21st-century crimes. With that in mind, I hope that the Minister will agree that the change is appropriate. I am sorry that my voice is so croaky, Mrs. Humble.

I tabled amendment No. 157 because I believe that those who commit the crime should serve the time. Nothing in the Bill prevents offenders from being eligible for the custody-plus scheme—a subject that I know is dear to my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening), who raised the point on Second Reading. I agreed with her entirely when she   pointed out that it is wrong that people who commit crimes against inanimate objects are sentenced for longer periods than those who offend against animals, who have feelings and emotions.

The provision would mean that some people who have committed the most atrocious crimes could face about 13 weeks in prison. My hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) highlighted some despicable cases of animal cruelty. There was a case involving nine men and a woman who were prosecuted for dog fighting offences. I was appalled that the longest sentence handed out to one of them was only four months. Such short sentences are not sufficient either as punishment or as a deterrent, and the custody-plus release scheme should not be used in these circumstances. The public will have no confidence in a system that can permit someone responsible for the cruel death of an animal to be in prison for only three months.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 6:45 pm, 24th January 2006

I shall speak briefly to support my hon. Friend’s amendments, especially the first one, to which he kindly referred in an intervention. The proposal is important to the public’s understanding of what we do in this place and of the meaning of legislation. Sentencing practice needs to be simple, clear and understandable.

Subsections (1), (2) and (4) contain puzzling discrepancies and the amendment would rectify the one in subsection (2). In all three subsections, the offence could lead to

“imprisonment for a term not exceeding 51 weeks”.

That is clear, and no one could dispute it. But most members of the public would expect the alternative penalty of a fine to be consistent, yet the fine is different for all three offences. If 51 weeks is the maximum period of imprisonment, the maximum fine should also be consistent for all three offences; otherwise they will lack credibility, and that is daft.

If an offence under clauses 8 and 11 or those subsections could lead to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, or 51 weeks imprisonment, why is not that the case for an offence under clauses 4 to 7? If 51 weeks is the maximum term of imprisonment and magistrates decide instead to impose the maximum fine, they are constrained by different maximums. The ordinary member of the public trying to understand the criminal justice system, which is complicated enough, will wonder why, if there is consistency in the maximum term of imprisonment, there is no consistency in the maximum fine.

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

I support amendment No. 157. As I said on Second Reading, I am anxious that the amendment should be accepted. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster said, people convicted of dog-fighting offences were given a four-month sentence, which, arguably, was insufficient. Under the Bill, the maximum will be only 13 weeks, which is wholly inadequate. The Bill has   focused on animal welfare issues from the word go, and organised criminals will not be put off by custody plus from breaching animal welfare conditions.

It is important, therefore, that magistrates have the ability to give a substantial 12-month sentence if they feel that that is appropriate. At some point, it may be wise to give them the chance to give a longer sentence, but that is not the subject of the proposal. I urge the Minister to accept the amendment; most members of the public would wish him to do so.

Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith PPS (Yvette Cooper, Minister of State), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

I have every sympathy with the amendments in the sense that there should be consistency in the fines and that we need to ensure that organised criminals are prevented from undertaking their vicious practices for as long as possible. However, penalties for offenders must be a combination of deterrent, punishment and protection for animals.

In respect of fines and imprisonment, the punishment factor and the deterrence value as it affects potential future offenders are in place. I welcome the increased penalties in the Bill, but I think that we need to balance the picture by recognising that the protection factor is the ban on the future ownership of animals. We need to remember that part of the package when looking at the clause.

In Sheffield last week, we had a terrible case brought to court by the RSPCA, involving a dog called Shogun, which has fallen from its ideal weight of 50 kg to 32 kg in the space of a few months. The dog was tethered to a metal post, hardly able to move, and was kept alongside—in fact, on top of—a pile of rubbish. The punishment meted out to the offenders was a conditional discharge of 12 months and a ban on the ownership of dogs for five years.

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

One thing is that the ban is specific to dogs. There is a real weakness in the legislation that allows such people not to be banned from keeping an animal of any sort, and for a very long period of time. That would not be as a punishment, but as a precaution.

Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith PPS (Yvette Cooper, Minister of State), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that valuable perspective.

I was going on to say that I would like the Minister to look at two things. One is the scale and terms of the ban, and whether that relates just to the animal over which the offenders were prosecuted or whether we would need to include all animals in such bans. Secondly, when someone has treated an animal in such a way, is a ban of five years sufficient? Is there anything that we can do in the guidance to ensure that animals are protected in the future through the use of the mechanism? In particular, lifelong bans are important in the protection of animals and they have to be used when necessary to protect animal welfare.

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

I am pleased that we have had the chance to have the discussion, because the issue was raised at some length on Second Reading. I know that it concerns hon. Members on both sides of the House. I am glad that there has been a broad welcome for the   quadrupling of the maximum fine and the increased possibility of longer prison sentences. I will come to the impact of custody plus in a moment.

I wanted to say to the hon. Member for Leominster that amendment No. 157 would disqualify anyone who has been convicted under clauses 4 to 7, and clause 8(11)(6) or clause 30(9) from early release under a custody plus order made under the Criminal Justice Act 2003. I am sure that he understands that disapplying the statutory sentencing framework governing custodial sentences for one category of offences is not possible.

The Criminal Justice Act introduced custody plus, which is a new structure for short custodial sentences and is designed to make them more effective in reducing reoffending. When implemented—it has not been yet—custody plus will apply across the board to all custodial sentences under 12 months. Under a custody plus sentence, offenders will serve their sentences in full, partly in custody and partly on licence complying with court-set requirements in the community. However, currently, all custodial sentences of 12 months or less are served only to their halfway point. At this point, release is automatic and the second half of the sentence is subject to no conditions whatsoever. We believe that such short custodial sentences give the Prison Service little time to work on the factors that underlie criminality and are therefore ineffective at reducing reoffending. Custody plus also provides an opportunity for the effective resettlement of offenders, which is key to reducing reoffending.

Under the current legislation, a maximum sentence of three months’ imprisonment can be imposed for offences of animal cruelty, which results in a maximum of three months spent in prison followed by no supervision in the community. However, all custody plus sentences will be at least 28 weeks and up to 51 weeks in total, and each sentence will comprise between two weeks and three months in custody, followed by a minimum of six months’ supervision in the community. During that period, the offender will be under the supervision of the probation service, subject to requirements such as unpaid work—which could be something to do with animal welfare, if that was deemed appropriate—a curfew, or drug or alcohol treatment.

The other issue that Members should be aware of is that it will be possible under the Bill to impose two or more custody plus sentences to run consecutively for two or more offences, provided that the total term does not exceed 65 weeks and a total custodial period does not exceed 26 weeks. The hon. Member for Putney is right to say that, for one offence, we are talking about 13 weeks in jail, but if there is more than one offence, it is possible for the courts to ask for the sentences to run consecutively.

I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough. Yes, the vast majority of people concerned about animal welfare want those who inflict terrible cruelty on animals to be punished properly, but their main concern is protecting animals. The welfare of animals is why we are all here to support the Bill, and it is far more effective to give the courts   scope, as the Bill does, not only for lifelong bans on ownership, but for lifelong bans on ownership of all animals, not just the animal involved in the case.

Amendment No. 157 would preclude those convicted of animal cruelty or welfare offences from a period of supervision following release from custody, and would thereby preclude the opportunity for constructive work to prevent reoffending. Amendment No. 158 would raise the maximum fine for the welfare offence in clause 8 from £5,000 to £20,000. The maximum fine of £20,000 for an offence of cruelty under clause 4 has already been quadrupled from the status quo and is designed to allow the courts more flexibility when dealing with very serious cases of animal cruelty, such as animal fighting, in which the suffering is deliberately caused, and cases in which the motive is financial.

In cases involving the welfare offence in clause 8, we would not expect there to be actual suffering; otherwise, the prosecution should have been for the cruelty offence under clause 4. It would not be sensible to have the same maximum financial penalty for both the welfare and the cruelty offences. On that basis, I ask the hon. Member for Leominster to withdraw the amendment.

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

I understand the Minister’s argument that perhaps an offence under clause 8 is not as serious as one under clause 4, which relates to unnecessary suffering, but if that is the case, why is the term of maximum imprisonment the same?

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

Because that is what the magistrates courts can give as a maximum sentence. We wanted to reflect in the maximum fine the difference in seriousness between the welfare offence and the cruelty offence. I am thinking particularly of the organised criminality to which hon. Members have referred. We wanted to hit the people involved in such criminality in their pockets. At the same time, we wanted to reflect the seriousness of some welfare offences. We wanted to give the courts the flexibility to reflect that and the possibility of reoffending in the prison sentence. The most significant aspect of the Bill is that we have closed some of the loopholes relating to disqualification. Society at large will be most interested in protecting animals through disqualification, rather than in punishment and retribution.

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

I shall deal with the second aspect first, if I may. I do not have a problem with the increase in the fine for the cruelty offences. In fairness to the Minister, the welfare offence is a lesser offence, so the fine is, rightly, lower. The odd bit is the prison sentence, and I am quite willing to accept that my amendment does not deal with that particularly effectively. As I understand it, a magistrates’ court may impose a sentence of up to 51 weeks, as compared with the signal that the Bill appears to send, which is that the prison sentence could be the same for either offence. I think that that is what the Minister has said.

I am not so happy with what the Minister said about people who are convicted. I hope that we all agree that a ban on ownership is not a punishment in itself, but a protection against further acts of cruelty. I was much more alarmed by the idea that people who have offended should be allowed near animals again. I cannot remember the Minister’s exact wording, but he was   concerned about working with those criminals—they are criminals by that stage—and preventing reoffending. I was going to say that that is madness and that we do not want someone who has been convicted of animal welfare offences to work in an animal welfare institution, just as we do not want paedophiles working in our schools. Then I realised that that was the most inappropriate analogy, because we have just had such a problem with this Government. I am sorry about that, but this is a serious point, and we need to be clear to the courts that we take such offences seriously and want the proper bans. We also want to make it clear that we do not want people convicted of animal cruelty to work in animal institutions unless there is supervision of such inordinate care that the person cannot possibly reoffend. I do not think that that will be possible.

Photo of Justine Greening Justine Greening Vice-Chair (Youth), Conservative Party 7:00 pm, 24th January 2006

On that point, does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that we monitor how custody plus works in practice to ensure that when someone is out serving a community sentence, the sentence actually has some sort of impact on the person, and they are not just running around, free to do whatever they like?

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

Yes, the Minister was at pains to point out that the provision has not yet come in. My hon. Friend’s point is absolutely valid; we want the punishment to fit the crime. I think that the Government want that, too, but as to whether they can achieve it, we will have to wait and see. However, it would be difficult to change this particular part of the Bill. We have got on the record what the Minister wants and what the Committee wants, and that is as much as we can do under the circumstances. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 28 ordered to stand part of the Bill.