Before I discuss clause 1, I want to comment on and welcome the widespread support that the Bill has received, across the House and beyond. It was clear on Second Reading that the Bill has strong backing across the House, which was unified in its view that there is no place for animal cruelty in this country and that we must deal with it in the strongest possible terms. I welcome the spirit in which our discussions today have taken place. I am sure that that is part of our collective view that the United Kingdom should continue to be a world leader on animal welfare.
The Government committed to increasing maximum sentences for animal cruelty offences in September 2017 and I am pleased to see hon. Members who have supported this measure here today. I know that some hon. Members will feel that we should have moved faster, but collectively we have moved quickly in recent weeks to see much animal welfare legislation move forward and I am grateful for that.
As was made clear on Second Reading, under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 the current maximum penalty for animal cruelty offences is six months imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. This Bill amends the Animal Welfare Act to extend the maximum penalty available to five years imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine for the worst animal cruelty offences relating to animal welfare in England and Wales. We heard this morning just how important it is that this Bill reaches the statute book as soon as possible.
Clause 1 is the Bill’s main clause and outlines the mode of trial and maximum penalty for certain animal welfare offences. As it is proposed that the maximum custodial sentence is extended to five years, these offences will become triable either in the magistrates court or the Crown court, depending on the severity of the offence. Specifically, clause 1(2) changes the maximum custodial sentence for the most serious offences under the 2006 Act. These are: causing unnecessary suffering to a protected animal; carrying out a non-exempted mutilation; docking the tail of a dog, except where permitted; administering a poison to an animal; and involvement in an animal fight—a dog fight or something similar, as we talked about earlier today.
Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which this Bill amends, all protected animals are covered. In its legal definition, a protected animal is a vertebrate animal of a kind commonly domesticated in the British Isles. Animals not commonly domesticated, such as wildlife, are “protected animals”, but only to the extent that they are under the control of man or are not living in their wild state.
Clause 1(3) relates to the mode of sentencing. Under section 78 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000, magistrates courts do not have the power to impose penalties greater than six months. Section 154(1) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 increased the maximum custodial sentence imposable by a magistrates court to 12 months. However, to date this section has not been commenced and the clause reflects that position. In practice, that means that the existing maximum penalty of six months or an unlimited fine is retained if the offender is summarily convicted through a magistrates court. However, with the passing of the Bill, offenders may now receive a higher penalty of up to five years imprisonment or an unlimited fine if they are convicted on trial by indictment in a Crown court.
This country has some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world, but among the lowest maximum penalties. Clause 1 will ensure that in those rare but shocking cases that we have heard about too often today offenders will be properly punished. The new maximum sentence will also send a clear signal to any future potential offenders that animal cruelty will not be tolerated.