Mode of trial and maximum penalty for certain animal welfare offences

Part of Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 23rd July 2019.

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Photo of Sue Hayman Sue Hayman Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 2:00 pm, 23rd July 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey.

The main thing that I want to make clear is the Opposition’s support for the Bill, for which we have waited a long time. We also support the intention behind the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar, who has done so much to bring the Bill forward. We believe strongly that increasing the maximum penalty for the worst offences is important in order to send a clear message that society simply will not tolerate the gratuitous cruelty to defenceless animals that she described so vividly on Second Reading—to be honest, it nearly brought us to tears in the Chamber.

We know that perpetrators of such abuse are five times more likely to have a violent crime record and are more likely to engage in domestic violence against women and children. We need penalties to create a very effective deterrent, right at the beginning, when people do these appalling crimes. We do not necessarily expect many more people to be locked up for longer, but the sentence has a deterrent purpose. If people think they will get a maximum of only six months—or only 22 weeks, as has happened in the past—they are less likely to take their crime seriously as a criminal offence.

We need to ensure that the Bill gets a speedy Royal Assent. The Animal Welfare Act was brought in to level the playing field for animal cruelty penalties. That includes domestic pets, farmed animals and other wild animals, so that they all have the same sentence. Unfortunately, it has been only a six-month maximum, which has not acted as a deterrent as it was designed to do. Northern Ireland led the way in 2016 with a maximum five-year sentence for the worst cases. That also applies to causing unnecessary suffering to any animal. The equivalent under the England Wales and Animal Welfare Act is limited to protected animals, commonly defined as domesticated, under the control of man, or not living in a wild state.

One of our concerns, which I have spoken to the Minister about, is that we will be left with a two-tier penalty regime. Why was it decided that the Bill should not follow the Northern Ireland approach for England and Wales? We know that other issues have been raised, but the main point is for the Bill to reduce animal offences and make sure that the people who commit the most heinous crimes—particularly those described by my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar—are punished.

The Battersea Dogs and Cats Home has published a great book on sentencing—it is worth reading. It shows that the case of Baby, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar referred, is one of the most distressing documented cases. It is made even more distressing because the offender took pleasure in filming it, and not just filming it, but sharing it with his friends and enjoying watching the cruelty over and over again.

It is absolutely right that tougher sentences reflect our abhorrence, and we put different sentencing guidelines around things that are absolutely disgusting. I cannot imagine why anybody would want to watch something like that but, to the best of our ability, those who do watch need to be stopped. As the hon. Member for Cheltenham said, guidelines would normally be set by the independent Sentencing Council. It is very helpful that the guidelines for animal cruelty offences cover the use of technology to publicise or promote cruelty as an aggravating factor, and that filming an offence is specified for other offences. I hope that that means that it will be a simple matter for the Sentencing Council to take this into account when updating the animal cruelty guidelines after Royal Assent. It would be helpful if, on behalf of the Committee, we could place on record our clear view that filming should count as an aggravating factor.