New Clause 4 - UK animal welfare enforcement database

Animal Welfare Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 26th January 2006.

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‘(1)The Secretary of State may, by regulation, establish a UK Animal Welfare Enforcement Database to assist the enforcement of this Act.

(2)A UK Animal Welfare Enforcement Database established under this section shall contain only the following information—

(a)details relating exclusively to registration and licensing schemes under section 11,

(b)details relating to persons convicted under this Act, and

(c)details of the relevant experts and specialists that those persons responsible for the enforcement of this Act may wish to consult.

(3)The details contained within subsection (2)(a) and subsection (2)(b) shall only be amended by and accessible to—

(a)the police,

(b)the courts,

(c)local authorities,

(d)the Secretary of State,

(e)the Crown Prosecution Service,

(f)in Scotland, the Crown Office, and

(g)in Northern Ireland, the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland.

(4)Those persons who have access under subsection (3) shall not disclose such information to any persons during the course of an investigation other than those under subsection (3) that may be necessary to disclose to during the course of such an investigation.

(5)The UK Animal Welfare Enforcement Database shall conform with all the requirements of the Data Protection Act 1998.

(6)Before making regulations under subsection (1), the Secretary of State shall seek to consult publicly with all interested parties and make available the details of the evidence given.

(7)After the consultation procedure in subsection (6), the UK Animal Welfare Enforcement Database shall not be established unless a draft of the instrument containing the provisions for establishing the UK Animal Welfare Enforcement Database has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.’.—[Bill Wiggin.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 2:45 pm, 26th January 2006

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

This is another mystery. The new clause would give the Secretary of State the power to establish a UK animal welfare enforcement database. I am sure that we can all see the logic of having various pieces of information stored centrally, and I note that paragraphs 42 to 45 of the Bill’s regulatory impact assessment suggest that there would be merit in   establishing such a database. I am therefore disappointed that the Government have decided not to make provision in the Bill for a database.

Although I understand that clause 10 makes provision

“to facilitate or improve co-ordination in relation to the carrying out by different persons of functions relating to the welfare of animals”,

the possibility of a database being established is far too important to depend on that rather ambiguous phrasing. When we consider the human rights implications, particularly for the right to privacy, we see that the matter should be included in the Bill. Perhaps it is not included because the Secretary of State has signed the human rights statement; nevertheless, it should be.

I am also concerned that information could be mishandled or that non-governmental organisations could receive extra powers or some form of privileged access. That would, of course, fly in the face of all the assurances that the Government have given us about the Bill not empowering any NGO.

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

I agree with the points that the hon. Gentleman is making, but does he agree that it might also be helpful if police forces had standards of practice to deal with such matters? For example, not every force has a police liaison officer—some do and some do not. Furthermore, as I know from having spoken to the police force in Sussex, it is sometimes difficult to get information about animal welfare offences because they are not always recorded in a way that would help the database that we both want established.

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

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point; people do things differently. In fact, I made the point on Second Reading not only about police forces but about local authorities. If forces do not have sufficient funding—I have never met a police force that felt that it was flush with cash, except perhaps the Met—there is often a problem. I agree with the hon. Gentleman.The information will be limited to details of licensing, registration, convictions, and experts.

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

I must correct my hon. Friend: the Met is not flush with cash. In fact, Putney police station is open for just two hours a day because there is nobody to man the front desk.

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

I am not going to fight my hon. Friend; she is a very assiduous constituency MP, but she should come and see what is going on out in the sticks. She would be very welcome. However, should she decide to commit a crime after half-past 10 at night in Ledbury, she would find it difficult to get arrested.

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

What sort of crime was the hon. Gentleman thinking about?

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

The thought of my hon. Friend committing a crime is too much even for me to contemplate.

Under the proposals, nothing would prevent the sharing of the details of experts, which would be an important tool in investigations, providing access to anyone whom the Secretary of State felt needed that information. The database would be a useful reference tool for local authorities or the police seeking certain expertise, as the regulatory impact assessment itself states. Only those Government bodies with the authority to check on the people concerned would be granted access to personal details concerning licensing, registration and convictions. We have been reassured that the enforcement of licensing and registration under clause 11 will not be outsourced to NGOs, so the new clause is in keeping with the Government’s promise.

It will be the duty of the Government to check up on the people convicted under the Bill, not the duty of other groups or individuals who may seek to pursue offenders. We are already too aware of what some animal rights extremist groups get up to, and if they had access to details of offenders, they could do them harm. That is another reason why we need statutory restrictions on such information.

On a technical point, the new clause will ensure that if the Secretary of State decides to establish the database—I hope that she will—the fine details will be effectively and intensively discussed, consulted upon and scrutinised by Parliament. The new clause would therefore provide for the establishment of the database, but also safeguard human rights.

I would like some cast-iron guarantees from the Minister. Will he ensure that if the database is established, only Government organisations will have access to personal details and that NGOs will not be allowed special status? For instance, if the RSPCA is allowed access, with the proviso that it will not get extra powers, any member of the public could also have access. Will the Minister also guarantee that those suspected but not actually convicted of an offence will not be placed on the database and that peoples’ privacy will be protected from other people and organisations targeting them? Information on the sex offenders database is not in the public domain for those reasons. I hope that my sensible suggestions, which are also in the regulatory impact assessment, are taken on board. I look forward to hearing from the Minister.

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

The database is intended mainly to be an aid to the effective enforcement of the measures in the Bill. It would therefore be likely to include information about convictions, disqualifications and licences. Most members of the Committee will agree that that is long overdue and would help to tackle animal cruelty, breaches of animal welfare and people who try to evade their history of offending. This is a common informers Bill, so one could envisage examples in which organisations or individuals who take out a prosecution would want access to previous conviction records. That would be allowed under the Data Protection Act 1998 only if the data were being   used for the purpose for which those people had access. I stress to the hon. Gentleman that although there may be a need for people to have access, there would be no privileged access for particular groups or individuals. Access would have to be carefully policed and controlled and it might be necessary, but the 1998 Act would provide safeguards.

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

Did the Minister say that the database was going to happen or not? At the moment, the only reference to it is in the regulatory impact assessment. It is not in the Bill, and there is no provision for it.

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

We intend to introduce the database under secondary legislation, but we must give the matter some thought. There will be a consultation period, which the secondary legislation process will allow, and an affirmative resolution.

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

I am grateful for that, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.