Examination of Witnesses

Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:27 am on 23rd July 2019.

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Michael Flower and Claire Horton gave evidence.

Photo of Adrian Bailey Adrian Bailey Labour/Co-operative, West Bromwich West 9:31 am, 23rd July 2019

We will now begin our public sitting and hear evidence from representatives of the RSPCA and Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. I remind Members that questions should be limited to matters within the scope of the Bill and that we must stick to timings—I will be ruthless on that. Do any Members of the Committee wish to declare any relevant interests?

Good morning to our witnesses. Will you introduce yourselves for the record?

Claire Horton:

I am Claire Horton, chief executive of Battersea Dogs and Cats Home.

Michael Flower:

I am Michael Flower, deputy head of prosecutions, RSPCA.

Photo of Adrian Bailey Adrian Bailey Labour/Co-operative, West Bromwich West

Thank you. I invite Luke Pollard to open the questioning.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Fisheries, Flooding and Water)

Good morning. There is a lot of cross-party support in this Bill Committee for the key measure of increasing the sentence from six months to five years, so there will not be too much back and forth in arguing about that. Why is it important that this sentencing maximum is increased? Can you give examples of animal cruelty you think should be punished with a much greater sentence than the current six monthsQ ?

Michael Flower:

I will start, if I may. It is important that sentencing is increased because the current maximum penalty does not reflect the serious offences that we see in the animal cruelty world. There is a huge upsurge in public opinion, which seems to want increased sentences. We have encountered comments from the judiciary in our prosecutions and they would also like to see higher penalties so that they could deal adequately with the types of offence that have been encountered.

For example, we would be looking for increased sentence in cases such as “man pours lighter fluid on a dog and sets it on fire” and “man puts kitten in microwave, switches it on and kills it”. We have had recent cases involving puppies being kicked to death. We had a recent case involving two men who wanted to kill a dog, with some reason to do so, but rather than take it to the vet, one chap hammered a nail into the dog’s head. Then they buried the dog, and the dog was still alive. I could go on, but I don’t think I need to. Some of the cases we are encountering are, frankly, awful.

Claire Horton:

I endorse everything that my colleague has said. I think probably the most significant case that brought it home to me and really kicked this off was Baby the bulldog, which Ms Turley has fought for significantly. That is the most horrific example of animal cruelty: it was filmed on a mobile phone; people joked and laughed and deliberately sought to cause injury to that animal. The sentence that they got was a matter of weeks. The sentences are way too low given the scale that we see this happening: six months is the maximum, with a 20% reduction if a defendant pleads guilty. Battersea, as well as the RSPCA and other animal rescues around the country, sees almost on a daily basis animals coming in as victims of cruelty.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Fisheries, Flooding and Water)

Q Thank you both for that. That sets the context and shows why it is important that we get this legislation through. On the scope of the Bill, as I mentioned, there is cross-party support for including domestic animals and increasing the sentence to five years. The Bill deliberately has been drawn quite narrowly, around just domestic animals. Could you set out whether you feel there should be a distinction between domestic animals and wild animals in a Bill such as this? In the past, there has been a sense that cruelty to animals in general is what the public want action on, and the distinction between domestic and wild is a legal definition rather than one that the general public take to heart.

Michael Flower:

We would have to concede that there are differences with the legislation. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 protects animals that are considered protected animals. Broadly speaking, those are domestic animals. It does include wild animals if they are under the control of man. Some cruelty cases will involve wild animals, such as a badger or a fox, which often are caught during illegal hunting activities. Those animals will have dogs set on them. We had a case in Wales recently where a group of men were involved in that activity, and a young baby badger was skinned alive by two dogs pulling at each end.

Some offences relating to wild animals will be caught by this legislation. Some will not be. The crux is whether the wild animal is under the control of man. In some circumstances that is not the case, whatever cruelty is perpetrated upon them. In an ideal world, at some point in the future I hope there will be some merit in looking at animal-related sentences across the board, because we have the Protection of Badgers Act 1992, the Deer Act 1991 and Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which protects wild birds, but all those animals can be caused to suffer in the course of other activities. The Bill does not solve all problems for all animals, but, given that the vast majority of cruelty cases that are prosecuted relate to domestic animals, it is an extremely important first step.

Photo of Adrian Bailey Adrian Bailey Labour/Co-operative, West Bromwich West

Trudy Harrison indicated that she would like to ask a question, presumably on the same theme.

Photo of Trudy Harrison Trudy Harrison Conservative, Copeland

It is. Listening to the accounts that you just gave, which were absolutely horrific, I cannot comprehend the thinking that must have gone on before those incidents took place. Do you think that this Bill will reduce the number of those acts and, if so, why? Do you think it will act as a deterrentQ ?

Michael Flower:

I certainly hope so. To my mind, one of the great drives behind the Bill is to try to deter people from committing those offences. I go back a few years working for the RSPCA, and one of the main drives we had for bringing in the welfare offence at the time of the original Act was to introduce to English law preventive measures to stop animals being caused to suffer. The RSPCA is about preventing cruelty, not prosecuting it. We will prosecute it where offences are committed, but we want to prevent it. I hope that, if there is a five-year custodial sentence, that will act as a deterrent. It seems to me that there is a huge difference between an offender serving a 16-week custodial sentence, as is the case at present, and serving two and a half years. That must make some difference to some people, and it can only be beneficial.

Claire Horton:

We are aware of research by the University of Birmingham and similar research in Italy that found even a relatively small change in sentences can have a significant deterrent effect. Certainly, given some of the examples we have cited, the sentence at the moment is disproportionate, considering that the sentence for fly tipping is five years, the sentence for theft is seven years and the sentence for driving while disqualified is significantly more than this. For someone who knowingly and determinedly kills animals in the way you have heard about, there has to be a deterrent. There has to be a punishment that fits the crime. At the moment, it just does not at all.

Of course, as was said, there is significant public and cross-party support for this change. I think people recognise that we need to be seen to be taking this seriously and to be acting. Certainly, at the moment, we are the worst of 100 countries in the sentence we offer. Battersea did some research in 2017—I am sure most of you have already seen it, but I have brought some copies for the Committee’s benefit, which I will leave here—that looked at sentencing for animal cruelty in England and Wales. We surveyed 100 jurisdictions around the whole of Europe, the US and Australia, and all of them, including Ireland and Northern Ireland, had higher sentences than England. We really do need to act on this, and we need to do it soon.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Conservative, North East Hertfordshire

On deterrence, do you agree that it would help if the courts and the Sentencing Council worked up a list of aggravating features that would merit a long sentence within the bracket of up to five years? For example, you mentioned torture—setting one animal on another. You will know about my interest in service animals—I thank you both for all the support we had with Finn’s law. I suggest that if a service animal that is defending a police officer is attacked with a 10-inch knife and stabbed to within a very close shave of losing its life, that would be an aggravating feature too. What do you think of thatQ ?

Michael Flower:

The Sentencing Council has actually produced sentencing guidelines for Animal Welfare Act offences already—the most recent version was introduced in 2017, I think—and they contain examples of aggravating features. As a prosecutor, we find them very useful. We would certainly welcome the Sentencing Council revising those guidelines to take account of the Bill, if it is enacted. In fact, I suggest that it is essential that it does. We have had an indication somewhere down the line that it is prepared to look at this fairly quickly if the Bill comes into force. Yes, I would definitely welcome Sentencing Council guidance.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Conservative, North East Hertfordshire

Q I understand that is the position, but do you agree that if you have up to five years to work with, it is possible to make those distinctions more clearly than if you have just a very short sentence, such as six months?

Michael Flower:

Oh yes, it gives you much more scope, because in that short period of six months, when you take account of discounts for early guilty pleas and so on, you have a very limited band in which to work, so five years should improve the situation quite considerably.

Claire Horton:

Yes, we agree with that. Certainly, we are expecting up to five years to be used for the most serious offences, and aggravated offences come under that banner. We would certainly welcome the capacity and the ability to do that.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Conservative, North East Hertfordshire

Q Would you see torturing an animal, setting it on another animal or attacking a service animal as being the main areas for aggravating features, or are there others?

Michael Flower:

All those should be aggravating features. Some already are, under current guidelines. The use of an animal to cause injury to another is also an aggravating feature at the moment. Another aggravating feature that already exists, and that should continue to exist, is cruelty to multiple animals. Although the examples I have cited have all been physical abuse of an individual animal, there are some very serious cases involving the wholesale gross neglect of multiple animals. It can be a horse dealer with 100 horses, and the vast majority of them are in a suffering state. In my view, that must become an aggravating feature.

Claire Horton:

Of course, the law now is that if an animal—a dog—attacks a service dog, then the owner can receive up to three years’ imprisonment. However, if that owner himself attacks that service dog or any other dog, the owner would get up to six months, and that is it.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Conservative, North East Hertfordshire

I think there is an overwhelming case. Thank you very much.

Photo of Anna Turley Anna Turley Labour/Co-operative, Redcar

First, I thank both of your organisations for all the campaigning work that you have done to support us in getting to this place, and for all the work that your staff do every day. The case of Baby the bulldog, which was mentioned earlier, is what drove me to get involved in this, and that came to sentencing only because of the really good work by the RSPCA and your members of staff. I am sure that they felt the same as the public did—all that work to get these people to court for that horrendous event, and then to see just a suspended sentence, an electronic tag and a fine. That was insufficient. Thank you for everything that you doQ .

Building on Sir Oliver’s point about aggravating, I have an interest in filming and the use of social media. Is the filming of incidents of abuse and harassment for entertainment on the increase? How is that affecting your ability to prosecute or to take cases forward, and could that be an aggravating element in the seriousness of a case?

Michael Flower:

We receive quite a number of complaints that make reference to the social media site Snapchat. The figures I have seen show that in 2015 there were 27 complaints that mentioned Snapchat, and in 2018 there were 214. That would tend to indicate that there is a significant increase.

On an individual case-by-case basis, I am often asked why cruelty continues and seems to be increasing, and why serious cruelty seems to be increasing. I do not really know the answer, but I have a very strong suspicion that social media is a contributory factor. I have children who are on Facebook and so on, and a lot of people on these sites seem to live an almost artificial life, where they want to glorify their activities. One way a proportion of people seem to do it is to commit acts of cruelty and then put them on the internet so that others can see it. It is damaging, because it is almost publicising and promoting cruelty. To my mind, this is yet another aggravating feature. I believe that the Sentencing Council will recognise that fact—it has included that in the current sentencing guidelines. That is all positive, but it is an issue and I am sure that it leads to more cruelty.

From an enforcement point of view, it is sometimes helpful, because if we can secure the material that is being posted, we have pretty good evidence of what is being done by which individuals to which animals. It does not always work, because some of the material on these social media sites is deleted very quickly and cannot always be retrieved. It is quite surprising that we have had a number of pretty high-profile cases, including dog fighting. In one of the last cases I dealt with, they were going into fields in Bedfordshire, I think, and staging fights in the middle of the field and filming them. Then they put it on social media, where one of our researchers saw it and we were able to deal with the offending. It is a mixed blessing. It helps to perpetuate cruelty and it does not always solve it.

Claire Horton:

We see that in all sorts of other issues. It is not just in animal cruelty; it is in everything. It is people trolling young people and encouraging suicide. Social media has an awful lot to account for. Certainly, anecdotally, I would agree. I agree, actually, that in some places it is quite useful to have that footage. It works as some sort of shock tactic, for many people. It raises awareness for many people, but it also drives copycat behaviour with others. That is probably the real concern. I don’t think it is going away any time soon, but the more we can be clear about our intolerance of that sort of behaviour and how it is punished, that has got to help in tackling these crimes.

Photo of Anna Turley Anna Turley Labour/Co-operative, Redcar

Q Just to confirm, you say that social media companies take these videos down, but they are under no obligation to pass them to either the police or yourselves—they are just deleted, gone, and that is it?

Michael Flower:

I do not think it is the social media companies that take them down. From people who know about these things—I am not one of them—my understanding is that on Instagram, for example, where a lot of people seem to post images, it automatically comes off after 24 or 48 hours, so it comes and goes.

Photo of Bill Grant Bill Grant Conservative, Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock

Thank you for sharing your knowledge of social media and the impact it has on cruelty. Do you have somebody monitoring the footage that appears on Instagram or Snapchat, for instance? How are you made aware of it? Have you any examples where you have approached the company or platform provider, and if you have, have they proved helpful to you?Q

Michael Flower:

The footage tends to come to our attention partly by other people who have seen it reporting it. That is particularly common with juvenile offenders of school age, where peers in school will see their friends publicising themselves on one of these sites and are appalled by it, and so they report it. We do have officers who tend to trawl the internet looking for evidence of cruelty, particularly the more organised crime, such as large-scale puppy trading or dog fighting. I cannot recall a time when we have had to go to one of the internet company providers. I do not know what sort of reaction we would get. I am not aware of it being done.

Photo of Sarah Newton Sarah Newton Conservative, Truro and Falmouth

Like Trudy, I am sure that having to hear these appalling examples is extremely disturbing for us all. I am curious to know what sentences were meted out for such atrocious crimes. That would help us to appreciate how important our work isQ here today.

My question follows on from the discussion we have just had. It strikes me that there are, as Claire said, a lot of similarities with other types of crime, such as the sexual exploitation of children and how the internet is used there. What lessons should we be learning about raising awareness and educating people that this is absolutely unacceptable in our society? As you mentioned, children, who will be exposed at home and on social media, might be tempted to copycat. What more can we do to raise awareness that it is unacceptable, that these are crimes in our country, and that the people who perpetrate these crimes, or who are associated with them, will encounter the full force of the law?

Michael Flower:

When we had discussions with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about the Animal Welfare Bill, one of the important things that had to follow its enactment was publicity to educate the public that the law had changed and to make it clear that there were now new requirements for animal care, particularly in relation to the duty of care offence. When DEFRA introduced the codes of practice for domestic animals, that did not really happen.

Were this Bill to be enacted, I would again say that there needs to be a fairly significant media campaign to educate the public—to say that this is a new law with new penalties and that the Government and the country take the crime seriously—and to drive that message home to them. We try to educate people. Most of the work our officers do—although we talk in here about investigations and prosecutions—is about educating and advising people, and providing guidance to resolve problems before we get to the prosecution stage. We can put the message out, and I am sure that other agencies and charities will do so, but the Government need to do that as well—it needs to come from on high.

Claire Horton:

I think it is a partnership. We work very closely with the Government in other areas. Certainly, as an animal welfare sector, all the agencies work closely together. We all know each other well and share common ground when it comes to issues such as this. Certainly, we are able to join with the Government to share messaging—it does not matter what sort; we will happily do it.

There is a multitude of messages that we are trying to get out to people. One is how to make wise choices and decisions about the purchase of puppies, because puppy farming and illegal puppy smuggling and dog breeding are always huge issues. How do we make people much more aware of responsible ownership? How do we stop animals getting out and worrying livestock? How do we make people think differently about all manner of things? There is always a danger that messages can get mixed up—that they get muddled and ultimately people become blind to awareness messages that are constantly hitting them. It is about thinking carefully about the nature of the message, how it is put out to the population and what methodology or channel is used, which is quite important.

Earlier, I mentioned copycat behaviour, which worries me a lot, because of the issue of promoting responsible ownership as it relates to animal cruelty and not being cruel to animals. Inevitably, in those messages, we will be giving examples of animal cruelty and there will always be people who pick those messages up in the wrong way and go and do it. None the less, that does not stop us needing to be clear about this.

Ultimately, the biggest deterrents will be a much harsher sentence, a much more serious punishment and naming and shaming. One of the interesting things about the internet and some of the cases we have heard about is that when those perpetrators’ identities become public, life can get difficult for those people simply because of the public reaction. I make no comment on that, other than that it can clearly work in different ways when people or the issue are exposed.

Photo of Adrian Bailey Adrian Bailey Labour/Co-operative, West Bromwich West

I will come to Sandy Martin and then the Minister. We have 15 minutes left, so perhaps you can ensure that the Minister has plenty of time to ask his questions.

Photo of Sandy Martin Sandy Martin Shadow Minister (Waste and Recycling)

Thank you, Mr Bailey. Has either of you seen judges or magistrates deliberately choosing a sentence that is dependent on whether the animal is domesticated or wildQ ?

Michael Flower:

No, I can’t say I have encountered that. From my experience, the courts tend to consider the nature of the offence, rather than the animal, which is entirely right. You cannot really differentiate between extreme cruelty to a dog, cat, fox or badger—if it is cruel, it is cruel, and that is the way the courts tend to look at this, which is the right approach.

Claire Horton:

I cannot give an answer to that I am afraid, as I have no experience of court sentencing.

Photo of Sandy Martin Sandy Martin Shadow Minister (Waste and Recycling)

Q Would you agree that there is some legitimate concern, particularly from farmers, that if wild animals were included in this or any subsequent Bill, that might circumscribe their activities? Do you agree that killing is not necessarily the same as cruelty, and that you can have a system where an animal needs to be killed, but that does not need to be done in a cruel way?

Michael Flower:

Yes, I think that is right. There is already a clear distinction, and legitimate pest control continues. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 does not prevent that, and the Bill does not change that situation. I do not think the RSPCA has an issue with pest species animals being killed if that is done humanely—that is key. Cruelty is causing suffering unnecessarily, and there is a clear distinction.

Photo of Sandy Martin Sandy Martin Shadow Minister (Waste and Recycling)

Q You raised the issue of a baby badger being skinned alive. There is some controversy about or question whether that would be covered by the Bill. Do you believe it would be sensible to review the scope of the Bill at some stage in the not-too-distant future, to see how well it is working and whether it should be revised?

Michael Flower:

I think it would be sensible, and I believe an amendment has been tabled that there should be a review after two years. I am not convinced that there will be sufficient data in two years to do that properly. If the Bill were to be enacted in the next three or four months, it would be a couple of years before results started filtering through the court system. A review would be welcome from our point of view because there might be anomalies between the Animal Welfare Act and other animal welfare protection legislation, such as the badgers Act. If this Bill is enacted, we must consider how sentencing can be applied to other areas.

Claire Horton:

I agree with that. The Bill is clear and has been introduced because of the recognition that animal cruelty is a serious issue. We would be concerned by anything that slowed its progress. It is fairly uncontentious, and I urge Members to get this bit through, and to consider issues of review and inclusion once we have more evidence further down the line.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Government Whip

Q You have taken away my first question. I was going to ask whether our two witnesses agree that speed is of the essence now, notwithstanding some legitimate, and quite thorny, questions that we will, at some point, need to grip more fully. It has taken some time to get a coalition of opinion, but it has become clear to me that not only the two organisations that you represent incredibly well, but a far broader coalition, is now saying that, notwithstanding other issues that might be out there, we need to get the legislation through. Could you confirm that? It would be useful to hear the RSPCA confirm that time is a priority, and that there is a broad opinion that we need to get on with the Bill now.

Michael Flower:

Yes, that would definitely be our view. Personally, I think that increasing sentencing is long overdue; it was unfortunate that that was not included in the Animal Welfare Act 2006. It is now clearly overdue, and needs to be implemented as soon as possible. The extremely narrow scope of the Bill should make it easier to push it through quite quickly, which would be very welcome from our point of view.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Government Whip

Q Do you think that a broader coalition of welfare groups supports that view as well?

Claire Horton:

Very much so.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Government Whip

Q On behalf of members of the Committee, I thank you both for the outstanding work that you have done and continue to do, and for the support that you have given the Bill. It is great that there is such broad consensus across the Committee and across the House on the Bill. Great champions on both sides are pushing it forward, which is good to see.

We had a bit of a conversation about sentencing guidelines in terms of Anna’s important amendment, and views and concerns about videos. Are you convinced that the guidelines help you in your job and will have teeth? I have that confidence, but it is important for Committee members to hear, particularly from the RSPCA, that in the work that you do and more generally there is a view that the guidelines can be of assistance and are meaningful.

Michael Flower:

They certainly are from the RSPCA’s point of view. Those of us who deal with prosecutions for the RSPCA will frequently refer to the guidelines because they give a clear indication of how society in the broader context may view these types of offence. The aggravating factors, which we referred to, are listed. Obviously, the more aggravating factors there are for a particular behaviour, the greater the likelihood of prosecution should be. They tend to give us a very useful steer.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Government Whip

Q Claire, do you have any thoughts on sentencing guidelines? Are you comfortable that the way we are taking things forward is a useful approach?

Claire Horton:

Absolutely, and I would agree. The entire welfare sector is of the same view. We are very comfortable.

Photo of Adrian Bailey Adrian Bailey Labour/Co-operative, West Bromwich West

In the absence of any further questions from Members, I thank both witnesses for their evidence, and move on to the next panel.