Mode of trial and maximum penalty for certain animal welfare offences

Part of Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:15 pm on 23rd July 2019.

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Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Government Whip 2:15 pm, 23rd July 2019

Of course—congratulations, and I thank her. It is such campaigning zeal that enables us to make the case to take this legislation through when there are competing demands. Full credit should go to our team of Committee members today; many of them have served in Committee on other animal welfare legislation. There is a commitment to get this legislation through Parliament, but we can do that because we have made the case collectively and there is common ground. I am thankful for all the campaigning work that has gone on to make it possible.

I believe that any cruelty caused to an animal should be met with a proportionate response. That is why we are here today to encourage the passage of the Bill. Aggravating factors are most often dealt with in the sentencing guidelines, as was highlighted and supported by the witnesses this morning, and not always in statute. The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Redcar would create a statutory aggravating factor. Statutory aggravating factors are used only for the most heinous criminal offences, such as domestic violence or terrorism. For other offences, it is normal for other aggravating factors to be included in the sentencing guidelines, which the courts are required to follow when determining the appropriate sentence in a particular case.

There are sentencing guidelines for animal cruelty, drawn up by the independent Sentencing Council, and they were last reviewed and updated in April 2017, following a public consultation. Under those guidelines, the use of technology to publicise or promote cruelty is already considered an aggravating factor, as has been referred to. Officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have been in contact with the Sentencing Council. As the Bill will change the maximum sentence available for animal cruelty, the sentencing guidelines for animal cruelty will be subject to review by the Sentencing Council, which will publicly consult on the updated guidelines.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham was, I think, concerned about the question of statutory guidance. Our view is that this behaviour will be one of the other aggravating factors. The good news is that it is already included in the Animal Welfare Act guidelines, so, as the hon. Member for Workington said, we hope that it will be more straightforward. The fact that DEFRA officials are speaking to the Sentencing Council gives us real cause for optimism.

The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport made an interesting point about the online harms White Paper. Based on that suggestion, we will be meeting the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and talking closely with it about what we can do in that area. It is scary when we see what people—young or old—are watching now. They seem to get relative highs on really disgusting material, animal cruelty being one. That has to stop, and hopefully we can make some inroads on that.

The proposed aggravating factor of filming an offence is already taken into account by the courts when sentencing for certain relevant offences. For example, the sentencing guidelines on “Robbery—sentencing children and young people” includes the following other aggravating factor:

“filming of the offence…or circulating details/photos/videos etc of the offence on social media or within peer groups”.

That is for consideration by the court when sentencing the offender. I assure the hon. Member for Redcar that DEFRA will raise that issue and will continue to engage with the Sentencing Council, which I am sure takes this matter very seriously.

In addition to the guidelines on sentencing, existing legislation provides an offence that covers filming animal cruelty. Section 127(1) of the Communications Act 2003 creates a specific offence of sending grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or menacing messages over a public electronic communications network. It is a matter for the Crown Prosecution Service to decide which charges to bring, but it is possible that someone filming an act of animal cruelty could be charged with an offence under section 127(1). That would result in a maximum sentence of six months simply for the offence of posting abhorrent or offensive material online. Evidently, there are options to ensure that the offenders who film and upload or distribute footage of their animal cruelty are met with an appropriate response. When this Bill is passed, these pre-existing options could enable courts to impose a higher sentence. It is useful to see what legislation is out there in the round and also what guidelines are there.

Committing animal cruelty is repugnant and filming it to share with others is beyond comprehension. As mentioned, we will discuss this matter further with the Sentencing Council. When they review the guidelines, we will ensure that this point is raised during the public consultation. On that basis, I ask the hon. Lady whether she would be kind enough to consider withdrawing her amendment.