Clause 29 - Deprivation

Animal Welfare Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 7:00 pm on 24th January 2006.

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Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 7:00 pm, 24th January 2006

I beg to move amendment No. 176, in clause 29, page 14, line 20, at end insert—

‘(3A)The court shall not make an order for the destruction of an animal under this section unless it is satisfied, on the basis of evidence given by a veterinary surgeon, that it is appropriate to do so in the interests of the animal.’.

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

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Government amendments Nos. 138 and 139.

Amendment No. 177, in clause 29, page 14, line 33, at end insert—

‘(5A)A person appointed under subsection (4)(a) shall be a veterinary surgeon or other person who the court is satisfied has the appropriate training and qualification in, and experience of, animal welfare.’.

Amendment No. 57, in clause 29, page 14, line 34, after ‘decides’, insert

‘to make an order or’.

Amendment No. 29, in clause 29, page 14, line 44, at end insert

‘, where it is appropriate to do so in the interests of the animal.’.

Amendment No. 178, in clause 31, page 16, line 16, at end insert

‘; and

(c)in the case of the destruction of an animal, it is satisfied, on the basis of evidence given by a veterinary surgeon, that it is appropriate to do so in the interests of the animal.’.

Amendment No. 31, in clause 31, page 16, line 27, at end insert

‘, where it is appropriate so to do in the interests of the animal.’.

Amendment No. 182, in clause 34, page 18, line 20, at end insert—

‘(3A)The court shall not make an order for the destruction of an animal under this section unless it is satisfied, on the basis of evidence given by a veterinary surgeon, that it is appropriate to do so in the interests of the animal.’.

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

I shall try to keep my comments short. With amendment No. 176, we seek to make sure that everything possible is done to preserve the life of an animal that may have to be destroyed under the clause. Subsection (9) as drafted makes it clear that references in the clause to disposing of an animal include its destruction. Although I accept that the destruction of an animal under the clause would probably take place only in the most exceptional circumstances, I feel that it is nevertheless necessary to make ensure that it is to be done only when evidence given by a veterinary surgeon suggests that destroying the animal would be in its best interests. Magistrates are not suitably qualified to pass judgment on the medical condition of an animal, so the amendment would empower them to consult a veterinary surgeon, who is better qualified to determine whether an animal’s condition warrants an order for it to be put to sleep. That is a constructive little amendment, and I hope that the Minister agrees to it.

In keeping with the principle that science and expertise must be used to secure the welfare of our animals, amendment No. 177 seeks to ensure that the appropriate qualified person is appointed to carry out the functions detailed under subsection (4)(a). That is not made explicit in the Bill as drafted. The subsection states that the court can

“appoint a person to carry out, or arrange for the carrying out of, the order”,

but it does not give any criteria to determine who that person may be. I am sure that it is not the intention of the Bill to leave open the possibility of an inadequate person being required to carry out functions of the legislation. I covered the circumstances in which a person should be authorised to destroy an animal in relation to amendment No. 176, and the argument for amendment No. 177 is in a similar vein.

As a society, we need to know that animals are well treated and that we do not put them in a position where they are once again left vulnerable to being neglected or abused. If society, through the courts, judges that an animal should be treated in a certain way, we must be reassured that it will be done professionally and competently. If, for example, the court decides that an   animal is to be sold, we would want to make sure that that was done in a reputable way, through the correct channels.

With amendment No. 57, we seek to ensure that a court always justifies the reasons for its decisions; I am sure that the court would want to do so. Under subsection (6) as drafted, there is a responsibility on the court to justify its decision only when it decides not to deprive an owner of their animal. That is right and proper, but although I appreciate that in many circumstances a convicted offender should be banned from keeping their animals, that is not an automatic decision. I am puzzled as to why a court needs to give a reason for not enforcing a deprivation, but does not need to give reasons when issuing a deprivation order. That seems like a contradiction. A court should have a duty to give reasons when it makes an order, as well as when it does not make an order. If anything, that would make any future appeal or judicial review hearings easier, as those present will be able to see why the court made its original decision.

We are nipping through the amendments as quickly as we can, Mrs. Humble. Amendment No. 178 is similar to amendments Nos. 176 and 177, and to all intents and purposes serves to achieve the same aim of ensuring that the interests and needs of animals whose futures depend on the powers exercised by the courts are put first. We all know that one of the reasons for the need to pass the legislation is to update our laws so that they concord with scientific advances and medical evidence. I agree that that is necessary and important, which is why we want this to be seen throughout the Bill.

The amendment would ensure that in the absence of the owner being available, a qualified vet would be present to decide whether it was in the animal’s best interests for it to be put to sleep. I believe that in the owner’s absence, only an independent vet should provide the necessary evidence for that important decision to be taken.

Amendment No. 182 seeks to ensure that the preservation of an animal’s life will always be the priority when taking decisions under the legislation. The Bill does not explicitly state that the destruction of an animal involved in a fighting offence should be the decision of last resort. The Kennel Club has expressed concern about the matter, and I believe that we must act in the best interests of an animal, regardless of the offence that it commits. As such, we must sometimes be prepared to put the effort in to preserve its life.

Sadly, it is all too often in the best interests of an animal involved in a fighting offence to be put down, but it should always be done after examining the medical evidence given by a veterinary surgeon, who should always exercise his judgment on the basis of the animal’s wellbeing.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

I support the amendments but shall ask the Minister only about the role of the veterinary surgeon and whether the forthcoming legislation, which we hope will be introduced as a matter of urgency, will give that surgeon greater power and responsibility. So far as I can see, clause 29 increases the vet’s responsibility. Vets may already exercise such   power and responsibility under existing legislation, but under the clause it appears that the vet would have to decide whether to destroy an animal. I seek clarification of how that would affect their protection and the way in which they would then operate.

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

We, too, support the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Leominster. Amendment No. 29, like some of the other amendments that have been tabled, probes the question of when an animal should be destroyed. We certainly do not believe that there has been sufficient discussion about that, and I seek reassurance from the Minister that those issues have been properly considered.

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

This is a large group of amendments, which I shall try to break down as clearly as I can. In doing so, I shall speak formally to Government amendments Nos. 138 and 139.

I start by dealing with the amendments that relate to destruction in the interests of the animal. For ease of reference, those are amendments Nos. 29 and 176, which concern clause 29, amendments Nos. 31 and 178, which concern clause 31, and amendment No. 182, which concerns clause 34.

The Committee debated whether we need to include this sort of instruction to the courts when we considered clause 18. Overall, I ask the Committee to consider the same arguments in relation to these amendments. I find it difficult to envisage a situation, with the exception of a situation that involved fighting animals, in which a court would decide a case under the Bill without taking the interests of the animal into account. It goes without saying that the court will hear arguments on this point and will take the interests of the animal into account. However, hon. Members need to bear in mind the impact that their proposals would have on the ability of the courts to deal effectively with offenders. With that in mind, amendments Nos. 29 and 176 concern the power in clause 29, which is the power to confiscate animals. This is not only in the interests of the animal, but is aimed partly at punishing the offender. If he has been found guilty of a serious offence, possibly involving many animals and from which he possibly derives a profit, it is appropriate to deprive him not only of the animals themselves but of their value. That is what the clause allows. In the majority of cases, the court will want to consider the interests of the animals concerned, and a deprivation order will almost certainly be in accordance with the animals’ best interests. However, that will not always be the only factor to take into account. In some cases, animals might have to be destroyed when they have been removed. That is normal for farmed animals, and it might be necessary when the animal that is confiscated has been trained for fighting. Providing that the animals are dealt with humanely and appropriately, we do not believe that that should be ruled out.

Similar arguments apply to amendments Nos. 31 and 178 to clause 31. Under that clause, when a person has been disqualified, an order can be made for the removal of animals that he currently keeps in breach   of such an order. In that case, the owner is not deprived of the value of the animals, but the animals can be removed to prevent him from breaching his disqualification. Again, it will almost always be the case that removal and possible destruction are in the interests of the animal. However, if the animals that are seized are farmed animals or have been trained for fighting, it might be appropriate to order their destruction, even though it is not necessarily in their interests to do so. Again, we do not want to tie the hands of the courts when they enforce the law.

Slightly different arguments apply in the case of the destruction of fighting animals under clause 34, but again we believe that it is important to allow the courts discretion to deal with animals in the hands of offenders when those offenders have been convicted.

I turn now to the more procedural amendments to clause 29 and Government amendments Nos. 138 and 139. As members of the Committee are aware, I agreed to make several amendments to the draft Bill that was published in July 2004 in response to the recommendations of the EFRA Committee. One amendment that I agreed to implement was to insert a power to recover expenses under the Bill and, by an unfortunate oversight, the power to recover expenses has been inserted in all other relevant clauses, but not clause 29.

Amendment No. 177 would be an unnecessary and disproportionate interference with the freedom of the courts to perform their function. It would impose extra costs and burdens on the courts and other enforcers. Amendment No. 57 would oblige a court to give its reasons when imposing a deprivation order as well as when it chooses not to. We have included subsection (6) under clause 29 because the default position of the court should be that, if a person were convicted of an offence and if he were the owner of the animal that the conviction relates to, he should be deprived of that animal. He should not continue to care for it, nor should he be entitled to its value. If a court considers that the situation is exceptional, such that he should   continue to care for it or be entitled to its value, it should give an explanation why. However, if the court were merely doing what we would expect it to do in the majority of cases, we do not see why we should oblige it to state its reasons. On that basis, I urge the hon. Member for Leominster to withdraw the amendment.

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

On the last point, it seems that it is simply a difference of opinion. I made it clear that, if the court did not state its opinion, it was more likely to be challenged at a later date, which would make matters a little more difficult. As for the Government’s amendments, I have no great comments to make. The first one is sensible and the second a tidying-up exercise.

Our amendments were not intended to be damaging. They were well intentioned and important for reasons of clarity. I am sad that the Minister has not accepted them, although I understand why. The insistence on proper veterinary supervision at every stage is something that, unlike dealing with a road accident, could and should be done. When talking about animal welfare in such a way, we should be practising what we preach. I regret that the Minister does not want to take the amendments on board. There is no point in pursuing matters further into the night, but we can always return to them on Report. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments made: No. 138, in clause 29, page 14, line 29, at end insert—

‘(e)order the offender or another person to pay a sum representing the expenses of carrying out the order.’.

No. 139, in clause 29, page 14, line 33, at end insert—

‘(5A)Any sum ordered to be paid under subsection (4)(e) shall be treated for the purposes of enforcement as if it were a fine imposed on conviction.’. —[Mr. Bradshaw.]

Clause 29, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Further consideration adjourned.—[Tony Cunningham.]

Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes past Seven o’clock till Thursday 26January at Nine o’clock.