“(2A) After subsection (1) insert—
‘(1A) Subsection (1B) applies where the court is considering for the purposes of sentencing the seriousness of an offence under any of sections 4, 5, 6(1) and (2), 7 and 8, and the person guilty of the offence—
(a) filmed themselves committing the offence, or
(b) posted online a video of themselves committing the offence.
(1B) The court—
(a) must treat the fact mentioned in subsection (1A)(a) or (b) as an aggravating factor (that is to say, a factor that increases the seriousness of the offence), and
(b) must state in open court that the offence is so aggravated.’”
It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. Before I move on to the specifics of the amendment, I beg the indulgence of the Committee to say a few words of thanks to everyone who got us to this position. As I did on Second Reading, I thank my constituents, who responded so powerfully to the death of Baby the bulldog in such terrible circumstances with petitions, campaigns, floral commemorations and so on. They really have been moving and inspiring.
The fact that we are here in Committee shows this place at its best. There is a lot of cynicism in politics at the moment—a lot of people are getting angry and shouting at each other, there are threats of violence and so on—and it is very easy for people to feel frustrated and disempowered by the system and to think that the things that happen here do not make a difference. However, the progress of the Bill shows that, when there is a problem that needs fixing, if we are positive, we campaign, we are constructive, we petition and we work together collectively across parties—I am proud of the way we have done that—we can change the law and make things happen.
That sends a powerful message back to the public: “Don’t get angry; get even. Change the law. Work with your politicians—campaign and go and see your MP—and you can really change things for the better.” I thank my constituents for what they have done, and I thank Committee members. My colleagues have supported me so much in this process, but the Government have responded considerately and collaboratively. As an Opposition Back Bencher, I am proud to have been able to work with them to make this happen. I also thank all the organisations that we have received evidence from and that have supported the campaigning over the past couple of years. Collective thanks are due to so many people.
I am very happy with the Bill, but I would never want to miss an opportunity to add an extra couple of thoughts. As much as anything, my intention with the amendment was to stimulate a bit of debate. One of the most overwhelming issues in the case of Baby the bulldog was the fact that the young men involved filmed themselves undertaking the abuse, laughing as they did it. The filming was part of the abuse—part of what made the incident so horrific was that they glorified it and thought it was something worth capturing, saving and possibly even sharing.
The other side of the social media aspect is that, because the abuse was videoed and stored on a chip in a mobile phone, which was subsequently found on a supermarket floor, we had evidence that enabled us to bring those young men to justice. There is something very powerful about the role of social media and video in tackling the scourge of this cruelty, as we are seeking to do. That was why I wanted to raise awareness of the role of social media through my amendment. Although we are all outraged at any animal abuse, the use of social media and the sharing of video is a horrible aspect of abuse, which as a society we cannot condone and must not allow to continue. Videos of abuse must not be allowed to be shared and amplified in this way.
My amendment seeks to require courts, where people filmed themselves committing the offence or posted online a video of themselves committing the offence, to treat that as an aggravating factor in sentencing. In explaining the amendment, I want to set out some of the examples I came across in the course of my research that made me more determined to raise awareness. Again, I beg the Committee’s indulgence. We have already heard some horrible evidence—I know we have all had our fill of seeing and hearing about horrific abuse—but I want to demonstrate the severity of what we are dealing with and what social media has done.
Three men in the Forest of Dean were jailed for filming their dogs while they mauled badgers to death. The judge described that as “medieval barbarity”, and there is sickening footage showing the young men in peals of laughter as their dogs slaughtered the badgers. They had a total of 447 video clips of animal cruelty on their phone, but were jailed for just 22 weeks.
A pony was removed by police after video footage showed it being mounted by a man and falling backwards to the ground, which caused widespread outrage on Facebook. That was in Tunbridge Wells in Kent. Two teenage girls in Scotland admitted animal cruelty after a video showing them abusing a snake went viral. A Snapchat video of the couple, who were clearly drunk, showed them laughing as they tortured the reptile, which sparked online outrage. A video was shared on social media showing a black and white dog being thrown off a cliff into the sea. The dog is then seen swimming back to the shore. That video was shared widely on Snapchat, as we heard this morning. In June this year, another video was circulating online of a man laughing as he violently beats a terrified cat: he smacks it in the face and throws it down on the bed so hard that the video is absolutely horrific to anyone who watches it.
A Sunderland poacher is now behind bars after making shocking videos of his whippet brutally killing wild foxes. He posted graphic photographs and videos of him forcing his dog to chase the foxes, which he claimed was for sport. Three girls were arrested in March after shocking footage showed two kittens being abused and hurled into the air, and a man has been jailed and disqualified for life from keeping animals after appalling videos showed him setting his dog on a cat and a fox. This is happening, and we only have to tap something like “animal cruelty” into a search engine to see an awful lot of those horrendous videos.
It is clear that people are posting this stuff for clicks or likes, or as a way of making themselves notorious. It is awful to see: not content with simply inflicting injury on animals, these people are motivated by the prospect of their films going viral and being shared. It is grotesque and horrific, and demonstrates a greater level of malicious intent, which is why I felt we ought to debate the possibility of a specific deterrent. My amendment would make these crimes subject to an aggravated sentence for those who film themselves undertaking such an attack.
I found the evidence submitted by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals very powerful. We heard its representative say during this morning’s Committee evidence that, in 2015, the RSPCA investigated just 27 cruelty complaints related to videos and social media. By 2017, that figure was 167—a fivefold increase over just two years. That shows the scale of this issue and, as ever with legislation, we are struggling. Sometimes, we are on the back foot when it comes to catching up with changes in society and technology. This is our chance to get on the front foot.
Even more strikingly, the RSPCA’s evidence included a statistic from a recent survey showing that 48% of young people have witnessed some form of animal cruelty. Only 3% of those witnessed it directly, but a huge number—23%—had witnessed it on social media. What effect does exposing our young people to this material have on them? Does it have a normalising effect—glamorising, even—or lead to dehumanisation and lack of empathy? What effect will it have on our young people, particularly given the role of social media, with videos, clicks, likes and going viral seen as a means of success and of being popular? I worry that this is enabling and facilitating a nasty streak in society that we would not want to expose our children to, and would not want them to witness.
That is all I wanted to say to share why this deserves to be discussed and debated in this place. It is a great concern to me and, I think, anyone who cares about animal welfare and wants sentencing to reflect the severity and gravity of the action. I just hope that, in the course of this discussion, we get a sense of how serious this is.
I say up front that I do not intend to press the amendment to a vote, because I hope the Minister will reflect on it. He has already been very responsive to my questions. However, when considering such a Bill, it is important to talk about the context and the role of technology to make sure that when we are drafting it, every “t” is crossed and every “i” is dotted, so that these actions cannot slip through the net and be allowed to happen without any consequence. I appreciate having been given time to speak to the amendment.