2.7 pm

Animal Welfare Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 pm on 26th January 2006.

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Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Order. Before we proceed, I gather that there is likely to be another vote within the next hour. I must remind the Committee that there is no injury time awarded for Divisions, because the end time of our proceedings is determined by the House.

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

We shall be much quicker if the Government confirm that they are doing the research, as I think they said they wanted to, then we shall not   need to vote on new clause 5. I would give way if the Minister would just say, “Yes.” If he will not, I shall carry on with my lengthy but important speech.

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

I just hope that the Minister is looking at the right sort of videos. I can confirm that I shall not require a vote on new clause 5.

New clause 3 is very important, however. In the briefing, “RSPCA and the Welfare Offence”, the RSPCA hints that if the advice were backed up with greater legal strength, it would be less likely to be ignored. Moreover, given the fact that RSPCA inspectors have no statutory powers—we are told that they do not want any—and cannot issue notices that impose a statutory requirement on people, it would be sensible that only Government bodies had such powers. In addition, we should remember that RSPCA inspectors are not Government inspectors, and considering the confusion that it can cause, the new clause would clarify the law so that the public were aware that statutory improvement notices could be issued only by certain Government bodies and not charities.

There are concerns that the Minister is relying too much on the RSPCA to enforce the legislation, when Government bodies predominantly should prosecute under criminal law. The proposed statutory improvement notice in this new clause would enable the RSPCA and others, including individuals, to report suspected offenders to the appropriate authority, which with its expertise could check the allegations and, if they appeared to be true, issue the SIN.

We have heard how RSPCA inspectors visit premises on numerous occasions and that they are powerless to act even after 25 visits. The new clause would enable them to report the case to the appropriate authority, which, if it was of the same opinion as the inspectors, could immediately issue an SIN. That would speed up the animal’s recovery, which is what we all want.

On Second Reading the Minister said that if there was a serious welfare offence, the RSPCA might want to move straight to prosecution. If the amendment were accepted, nothing would stop them doing that, as that is its common-law right. A serious offence would fall under the cruelty offence in clause 4, not under the clause 8 welfare offence covered by the new clause. That is an important difference. It would be appropriate to give the power to the police, as they will be involved in the enforcement of the Bill, as well as to local authorities, the state veterinary service and the courts. Now that animal owners can be prosecuted under a far wider series of offences, we want to make sure that, in the first instance, they have the chance to improve the animal’s welfare.

If I dare, Mr. Gale, may I talk about my own chickens? Two days ago it was very cold; the water that they drink will have frozen over. While I am here debating with the other members of the Committee, my neighbour is responsible for making sure that the chickens have their water. He will pop round, break   the ice and make sure that they are healthy. If he did not go, a welfare offence would be committed. I would then be prosecuted, simply because I did not know that my neighbour had let those poor chickens down. It is far better to have a statutory improvement notice, at which point I deal with my neighbour and then find somebody who does turn up, or I find a better home for my chickens.

That is what is behind the new clause: if the warning order could be put in place, there would be no need to proceed to court. The evidence from the RSPCA is that issuing warning letters works: that is why it writes them and why I want to see the provision written into the Bill. I am more than happy to accept that the practicalities of the new clause and its drafting may not be perfect, but we have time between now and Report stage to hone it. I believe that such a move will also take place in Scotland, when it tackles the same problem. This is a well-meant new clause. I believe that it would make a vital improvement to the Bill, and I hope that, with all that in mind, the Government will consider it seriously and accept it.

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

I want to support my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster, who spoke so well to the new clause.

I want first to emphasise what my hon. Friend said about Scotland. Just before the Division the Minister moved some amendments to bring the Bill into line with the Scottish legislation. It seems sensible that, in this context, this measure too should be put in place. The second point is the need to avoid unnecessary prosecution; my hon. Friend gave the example of his chickens. As I am sure all members of the Committee will be aware, many of the welfare offences that will arise under clause 8 are caused by ignorance and are by no means wilful. Sadly, many people who keep pet animals or birds do not know how to look after them properly. We hope that the codes of practice will reduce that problem, but ignorance is a fundamental issue. I am not sure that it is helpful to move to prosecution simply because of ignorance, when people will often be more than willing to put things right if they are required to do so.

It is perfectly true, as my hon. Friend said, that an informal notice can be given, but that does not necessarily resolve all the problems. There should be an obligation to issue a statutory notice, and I endorse entirely his distinction between the welfare offence under clause 8 and the cruelty issue. If there is a serious, urgent issue that requires prosecution, I should think that it will fall under the cruelty offence, which should rightly move quickly to prosecution, because it will almost certainly be a matter not of ignorance but of wilfulness.

My final point by way of example, in a slightly lighter-hearted vein, relates to two press articles that appeared this week in my local paper, the Cambridge Evening News. Other hon. Members may have received it; I know that it has been circulated to one or two of   them. It relates to two individuals who are constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), just outside my constituency. They were prosecuted for failing to look after Sally, a lesser sulphur-crested cockatoo and Sidney, an African grey parrot, who were suffering from feather damage and feather pecking. The constituents were cleared of this offence by magistrates in Cambridge, which is why I feel able to use it as an example. That took place on Monday.

An expert witness during the two-day trial suggested that the birds’ habit of plucking out their own feathers had been brought on by sexual frustration. He said that the hand-reared birds had probably become sexually attracted to humans—that might be a challenge even for the Liberal Democrats—after mistaking their owners for their parents, which led to extensive feather plucking. Magistrates cleared the pair of all charges and later the presiding magistrate made his decision, saying it was unreasonable to expect a second opinion when veterinary opinion had already been received.

That is a clear example of an unnecessary prosecution and the magistrates clearly felt that that was the case. The person involved had sought veterinary advice on the matter and was told that there was no cure for the condition. It is the sort of situation where a statutory improvement notice would have been an obvious course of action, rather than action involving such cost and distress. Those birds were confiscated last May. The owners had been without them for nine months, and all that cost and stress could have been avoided if an improvement notice had been served. That is a good example that supports the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud 2:30 pm, 26th January 2006

I am not sure how the new clause will operate. A statutory improvement notice has to be served in some way and must have some legal importance. The Minister sounds as if he has misgivings, but the idea that there should be a yellow card, as well as a red one, has merit. However, it is a question of the grounds on which the statutory improvement notice would be served. To have any meaning, the notice would either have to be served through the courts or be subsequently available to the courts if a prosecution were to arise because someone took no notice of it. Those are my misgivings.

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

Although I am the author of the new clause and I believe in it passionately, I agree that there are fine-tuning details that would need to be tidied up. If a written warning were issued by an individual, would that be evidence in court, or should there be no private prosecutions without prior written warning of some sort? The minute one insists on a written warning for private prosecutions, one is in a very different legal area. That is a potential problem with the drafting, which I made clear in my speech. How would the hon. Gentleman feel if his constituents were consistently being prosecuted without warning, for minor offences under the codes of conduct?

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

I would not want that, but I do want more regular prosecutions. The big problem that we want to deal with by means of the Bill is that too many people get away with animal cruelty because the RSPCA is far too hamstrung in the way it is currently able to pursue such cases.

I will listen to what the Minister has to say. Of the new clause, I say, “Good idea, but shame about the detail.” Perhaps the Government can help in that regard. Unless there is some statutory underpinning that the courts can use at the time or subsequently, it will not mean an awful lot.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I have some sympathy with the intention of the new clause and I am not against the concept of the statutory improvement notice. It may well be appropriate under certain circumstances to have such notices as exist in other legislation relating to matters such as environmental health. It may be appropriate to have such a notice in place of a prosecution. I agree with the hon. Member for Leominster to that extent. Unfortunately, there are problems with the way in which the new clause is drafted. Subsection (1), for example, says that

“prior to any prosecutions taking place” there shall be served a statutory improvement notice.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Yes, but even so that limits the scope; there may be circumstances in which there is severe negligence that does not constitute cruelty, but that nevertheless justifies prosecution at the start date.

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

That misunderstands what this is all about, and I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman will reconsider. If there are severe welfare failings, that is cruelty and there will be the opportunity to prosecute immediately under the cruelty provisions. It cannot be a case of severe ignorance unless perhaps there is a swap of mice for hamsters, as the Minister suggested earlier, and the owner has no idea how to look after his new creatures. I do not believe that it is possible to fall into that trap.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I disagree with that, because even severe negligence may not amount to cruelty, and it is difficult to prove such cases in the courts. If someone is driven to mount a prosecution and they wish to bring it right away, they may have to use a cruelty offence because there is no alternative. Therefore, the prosecution may fail in the courts. The Crown Prosecution Service may have the same conundrum with someone who is charged with dangerous driving, or driving without due care and attention: the CPS may go for a lesser offence because there is more certainty of a successful prosecution. There is inflexibility in the new clause that is unhelpful.

As a matter of justice and fairness, any such statutory improvement notice would, by definition, have to carry a right of appeal, because it would be contrary to natural justice for there not to be such a right of appeal. A right of appeal would further elongate matters and, in the meantime, the concern might continue as to how the animal is treated.

So there are significant objections to the new clause as drafted. In addition, I think its proposals are more threatening, because a letter from the RSPCA, or whomever, may be regarded by the recipient as friendly and helpful, whereas a statutory improvement notice, with all its legal jargon, is likely to be less helpful and more threatening. It may have the opposite effect to that intended. There is also the bureaucratic requirement for the RSPCA to bring in someone else to serve the notice, whereas a letter can be written by the RSPCA itself.

I am not unsympathetic to the idea of a notice; it may have a place in the regime, but I do not think that it has a place in the regime as set out in the new clause.

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

I shall not repeat everything that the hon. Member for Lewes has said, because I agree with him absolutely. As I indicated in the discussion on clause 10, we are giving further consideration to the potential role of improvement notices, but he has put his finger on some particular problems with the wording of the new clause, in that it would make such notices compulsory in the case of a welfare offence, which may not be appropriate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud also asked about the practicality of this. Members may be interested to know that, under the existing system, the RSPCA uses improvement letters, or warnings as it were, which do not have any statutory backing. Last year, in its eastern region, it issued 257 improvement notices, of which 240 led to improvement in the welfare of the animal, without any statutory backing or bureaucracy of the type that has been mentioned. There were only 17 instances in which the notices were not acted upon.

So we are still considering the point; I do not think the hon. Member for Leominster has got it quite right, and we may not have got it quite right either, but I do not want to create a system that is more bureaucratic and inflexible, and two-tier, in the way that the new clause would.

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

I am grateful for what the Minister says, because what is wrong with the Bill is that we are allowing, or empowering, or encouraging—I do not particularly want to fight over which—a charity to do what, in any sector other than the animals sector, would be done by the police. The minute we went down that road we were bound to have problems about warning people. The problem is: who issues the letter warning to people to buck up and improve their animal welfare? Is it the charity, or a Government-empowered authority? That is why the new clause is so difficult, but that difficulty does not take away its importance.

If a horse rider whips his horse and his neighbour says, “He was whipping his horse far more than he should have done,” even if he is within the Jockey Club’s guidelines, he needs to be warned before being given a summons to court. He may then choose not to take a whip with him when he rides his horse, or he may choose to ensure that his neighbour is not responsible for the amount of water that his chickens have. That would put him back in charge of his   animals, as he ought to be, which is why the duty of care is so important. I suggest that the Government reconsider the matter.

Perhaps my drafting is not perfect. Amending the new clause to state:

“Prior to any prosecutions taking place under section 8, the appropriate national authority”

may—instead of “shall”—

“issue a person violating section 8 with a Statutory Improvement Notice” would perhaps give the Government a little more flexibility. We know from the RSPCA that statutory improvement notices work. It is tremendous that only 17 people ignored them. However, we cannot guarantee that the RSPCA will continue to issue the notices; that is not in the Bill. The people running the RSPCA now may not be doing so in 10 years’ time. We have no more than a verbal promise, so we need to ensure that the Bill makes proper provision.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I have some difficulty with that argument. Surely if the new clause were accepted, there would be no guarantee that a national authority would pursue the improvement notices. The authority may itself be negligent.

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

I am not sure that I understand the whole of that point, but what we are trying to achieve is a uniform approach at a time when powers are being split. The RSPCA will obviously want to continue issuing the letters because they are a good, effective and efficient means of proceeding. However, other bodies may decide that they want to pursue animal welfare prosecutions under section 8. Such bodies have not necessarily yet come forward, and they may not do so for five or 10 years. But, as it is 95 years since we have had a Bill of this nature, we should ensure that the public are protected from themselves, to some extent, and that their animals are also protected.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

My impression is that many people who have received the letters in question believe that the RSPCA has some legal authority on the matter, and are deeply worried that they will subsequently be pursued. My concern is what happens if they are not. The inability to bring prosecutions against the 78 people who have ignored the notices is at the root of the problem. That is why I disagree slightly with the hon. Gentleman.

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

I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, although 17 people have ignored the notices, not 78.

The other way to deal with the issue would be to change the right of individuals to bring prosecutions. That is a different challenge for the Government from that of amending the Bill, and I think that it is a Home Office matter. It would be a hugely problematic change to introduce. Giving a written warning before bringing a private prosecution would be helpful so that anybody could issue anybody else with a warning   before prosecuting them. That would be much better for our society, but it is not on the menu of what we can do today.

I am glad that the Minister said that he will examine the issue. I do not think that there are further points to be made, or that it would be helpful to press the new clause to a Division. We reserve the right to bring the issue back on Report, by which time I hope that we and the Government will have made some progress on it. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.