Report on effects

Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 23rd July 2019.

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‘(1) The Secretary of State must publish a report on the effects of the provisions of this Act.

(2) The report must include assessments of—

(a) trends in sentencing practice;

(b) the effects of this Act on animal welfare;

(c) the extent to which this Act has had a deterrent effect on animal welfare offences;

(d) the coherence and adequacy of animal welfare legislation in aggregate in the light of the operation of this Act.

(3) The assessment under subsection (2)(d) must include consideration of—

(a) the welfare of animals that are not “protected animals” under section 2 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006;

(b) sentencing for offences under—

(i) all sections of the Animal Welfare Act 2006;

(ii) the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981;

(iii) the Deer Act 1991;

(iv) the Protection of Badgers Act 1992;

(v) the Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996; and

(vi) the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 (S.I.2017/1012).

(4) The report must be laid before Parliament within two years of this Act coming into force.’—

This new clause would require the Secretary of State to lay before Parliament, within two years of the Act coming into force, a report on the effectiveness of the Act, including specific assessments of its effect on animal welfare, the overall coherence of animal welfare legislation, and other matters.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Sue Hayman Sue Hayman Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

New clause 2 would provide for an assessment of the effectiveness of the Act, and for a report to be laid before Parliament. I hope the Minister agrees that it is good practice for our legislation to be reviewed, and for Parliament to have the opportunity to consider the extent to which it is achieving its objectives, and indeed to consider whether any adjustments might be needed. Within that, we believe that there is a specific need to examine the level of penalties available to the courts for cruelty offences across animal welfare legislation as a whole.

The Bill improves the deterrence impact of penalties for cruelty under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, but introduces a two-tier system—maximum penalties for cruelty offences under the legislation listed in new clause 2 remain at six months. It is clear that offenders do not discriminate between wild and domestic animals in inflicting cruelty. The RSPCA has a shocking catalogue of offences, just a few of which I will mention: a wild rabbit hit with a log and stabbed with a pen; a sheep beaten to death with a gold club; a goldfish’s eye cut out; a squirrel set on fire; a cat chocked and suffocated; and two hens beaten to death. I find it extraordinary that anyone can behave like that.

How do we work out what maximum penalty should be available to the court in each of those cases? If a person kicks their pet rabbit, it should be clear that, under the Bill, the maximum penalty would be raised to five years, but what if the poor animal that has been kicked to death is a wild rabbit in the middle of a field? The nature of the offence is arguably identical, and most people would agree that the offender should face the same penalty, but would they? What about the case we heard about from Sir David Amess on Second Reading, of a driver who put down chips in a road to attract wild birds so that he could then run them over? Should wild birds, squirrels or hedgehogs be regarded as under the control of man in a situation such as that, and would they come under this penalty? What about people putting out poisoned foods at a wild bird feeding station? What if wild chickens are taken and tortured? Is it different if chicks are taken from a hedgerow or from a garden nest box? These are genuine questions and I find the definitions confusing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East spoke on Second Reading about cruelty committed against game birds that are specifically reared for shooting before being released in the wild. Where does that sit within an offence of cruelty? What concerns me is that guilty offenders might well seek to persuade a court that a lesser sentence should be imposed if the victim could be classed as a wild animal.

We heard in evidence from Mr Schwarz that the two-tier approach could end in confusion for both the judiciary and prosecutors. We need to consider carefully whether the Bill’s good intentions to deter the worst acts of cruelty could unintentionally lead to offenders targeting more wild animals. The Opposition are pretty clear that all animals are equal and deserve to be treated with respect and kindness. As our animal welfare plan stated:

“Our vision is one where no animal is made to suffer unnecessary pain and degradation and where we continue to drive up standards and practice in line with the most recent advances and understanding.”

Our preference would be for the Bill to set a maximum sentence according to the level of cruelty in the offence, rather than whether the animal is domestic or wild, which I have discussed with the Minister. New clause 2 offers the option of looking into that and giving Parliament an opportunity to consider it once the Act has taken effect. As I have said, we do not want to delay the Bill—we want it on the statute book quickly, which is why we are asking for a review. I hope the Minister considers it and I look forward to his response.

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

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I believe that the evidence we heard this morning from both the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the lawyer and police officer made it fairly clear that there was confusion about which offences come under the Bill. Clearly, there are questions about whether an offence relates to a feral cat or a domestic cat, or a wild rabbit or a tame rabbit, but there are also questions about organised crime. We heard from the police officer about dog fighting, which would come under this Act. Serious and organised cases of cruelty can now be prosecuted and a sensible and serious sentence incurred, yet the equally serious and equally organised crime involved in hare coursing probably would not.

All sorts of issues need to be tested in the courts. Very often in this place we seek to tie all the knots, cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s, but it is not always effective. We need to test these issues in the courts, but if they are to be tested in the courts, we need to review the result in order to establish whether the Act is doing what we intended it to do.

We heard from Mike Schwarz that serious issues will be aired by members of the public as a result of the sentences that will be handed down if, as we suspect, the sentences for domestic and wild animals are suddenly, obviously and publicly very different. We have heard on several occasions from the Minister that the Bill needs to be passed as soon as possible. We could not agree with him more. In fact, we could not have agreed with him more if he had said that 18 months ago, when we could have passed it. There is no good reason why, if we accept proposed new clause 2, that would add a single minute to the length of time it takes for the Bill to pass into law.

I urge us to accept the amendment and ensure that, whatever the results in the courts, we review them swiftly and effectively with a view to ensuring that we get consistent sentencing for consistent levels of cruelty.

Photo of David Rutley David Rutley Assistant Whip (HM Treasury), Government Whip 2:45 pm, 23rd July 2019

New clause 2(1) and (2) would create a statutory obligation for the Government to report to Parliament on the effectiveness of the Act within two years of it coming into force, including specific assessments of its effect on animal welfare and the overall coherence with animal welfare legislation, including sentencing under specified Acts relating to wildlife.

It is important to note that the Animal Welfare Act 2006 was subject to review by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in 2010 and informally through its domestic animals inquiry in 2016.

The 2010 assessment concluded that there was broad agreement that animal welfare had been improved as a result of the 2006 Act by bringing together diverse legislation and adding a preventative measure that allows action to be taken without animals suffering unnecessarily. The 2016 inquiry encouraged the Bill and the proposed increase in maximum penalties.

New clause 2(3)(a) would commit the Government to including an assessment of the welfare of animals that are not protected animals under section 2 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Subsection (3)(b) would commit the Government to look at sentencing for offences under various pieces of legislation pertaining to wildlife.

Wildlife legislation that protects animals in a wild state is a separate matter and, as we know, not in the scope of the Animal Welfare Act 2006. All animals that come under the control of man, whether domesticated or wildlife, will be subject to the maximum penalty. Indeed, there are separate pieces of legislation that focus specifically on wildlife, with appropriate sentences and penalties.

Relevant points are being made here and, of course, we want to respond to them. I do not think we know the general consensus but we need to move forward with the Bill. We do not want to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We have heard that before but it certainly applies to the Bill. Notwithstanding that the courts will have to make some interpretation, as is always the case, I reinforce the fact that any act of serious cruelty against a wild animal would most likely, by its very nature, entail that animal being under the control of man, and so would be caught by the Animal Welfare Act 2006.

Some of the deeply upsetting cases we heard about this morning, such as putting an animal in a microwave—if one could ever consider somebody doing that—could be committed only if the animal were under control of man. Although I understand the concerns, and that there are lawyers in the room, I am sure that courts will be well able to identify the most serious acts.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Conservative, North East Hertfordshire

I do not know whether the Minister would agree with me on a point that may need further consideration. If an animal is under a person’s control, does that not give that person a duty towards that animal? In those circumstances, is it not part of the wrongdoing that, having control of an animal, a person abuses it?

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

As I said, we have distinguished lawyers in the room for a reason—they make important points such as that one, which only my right hon. and learned Friend could make with such eloquence. I completely agree that there is an added responsibility. It is a privilege to be able to look after animals and, when we do, we should expect higher standards of ourselves. There are laws that are relevant to other wild animals but, when these animals are in the control of man, a higher standard needs to be adhered to.

I do not really want to mention these cases, but I am trying to provide clarification and confidence to members of the Committee. We heard the example of a rabbit being kicked in a very serious way. Whether a rabbit is wild or not, rabbits are commonly domesticated, and that would be covered by the Bill. Similarly, if other animals were mistreated under the control of man, they would be covered. I understand that there are concerns, but I reassure members of the Committee that the courts will be in a better position, as a result of this legislation, to hold people to account and put the right sentences in place. They will be able to make judgments that will help domesticated animals and, in many cases, wild animals too—I will come to the point about wild animals more broadly in a second.

A review of wildlife legislation has already been conducted. At the request of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Law Commission commenced in 2011 its wildlife law project to develop proposals for a modern, simpler and more flexible framework. The commission published its report and draft Bill in November 2015, and recommended that the existing pieces of wildlife legislation be replaced with a single statute.

Exit from the EU provides an opportunity to re-examine our regulatory framework and how it works so that it is fit for purpose to meet our national needs in the future and to fulfil our international obligations. As hon. Members may be aware, much of our wildlife law stems from EU directives. That is why EU exit would provide an opportunity to take that wider look. We will need to consider the implications of EU exit for our approach to wildlife policy before deciding whether and how to implement the Law Commission proposals.

In addition to the existing reviews of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, the Ministry of Justice regularly publishes criminal justice statistics. Under the 2006 Act, data on prosecutions, convictions and sentencing speak to the impact of higher penalties on animal welfare.

In summary, I completely understand the point made by the hon. Member for Workington, but the Bill focuses on the most heinous crimes involving animals, including wildlife, under the control of man. The penalties for wildlife crimes that focus on animals in their wild habitat are separate from this legislation. Welfare groups have long called for an increased maximum sentence for the serious crimes under the 2006 Act. It is important that we get this change of an increased maximum penalty on to the statute book as soon as possible and without amendment.

I would be happy to commit to meeting the hon. Lady in the very near future to discuss different maximum sentences for Animal Welfare Act offences and offences relating to the welfare of wildlife. In line with our normal, standard procedure, we will look at the impact of the Bill in three years’ time. On that basis, and with a commitment to hold an early meeting, I ask the hon. Lady to consider withdrawing her new clause. I hope she can support the passage of this important Bill at this stage without amendment.

Photo of Sue Hayman Sue Hayman Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I thank the Minister for his considered response. He will probably think that I am a bit odd, but I have a copy of the report and the proposed legislation from the Law Commission by my bed. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Thank you.

I would very much appreciate a meeting to discuss how we take this matter further. Some of the Law Commission work is excellent, and it would be good to see how we move forward. On that basis, I am happy to beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill to be reported, without amendment.

Committee rose.

Written evidence to be reported to the House

AWSB01 RSPCA

AWSB01(a) RSPCA (further written evidence)

AWSB02 Mark Randell

AWSB03 Mike Radford, Reader in Animal Welfare Law, University of Aberdeen

AWSB04 Dogs Trust

AWSB05 Animal Equality

AWSB06 UK Centre for Animal Law (A-law)

AWSB07 Forensic Access Limited

AWSB08 John McKenna

AWSB09 Battersea Dogs and Cats Home

AWSB10 Viva!

AWSB11 Naturewatch Foundation

AWSB12 Wildlife and Countryside Link

AWSB13 Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation

AWSB14 The Self Help Group for Farmers, Pet Owners and Others experiencing difficulties with the RSPCA (The SHG)

AWSB15 Martina Stuart, Veterinary Surgeon