“(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.”
This amendment would make an offence covered by this Bill more serious for the purpose of sentencing if the guilty person filmed themselves, or posted a video online of themselves, committing it.
The amendment stands in my name and those of my hon. Friends. We are all here because we want to give a voice to the voiceless and to speak up for the animals that cannot speak for themselves. That is, for me, something very personal, and I know that for many other members of the Bill Committee, protecting animals and giving them a voice is something that they have made a key part of their parliamentary career and time—whether longer or shorter—in this place.
Those who are familiar with me speaking about animal cruelty will know that I normally cite the gorgeous Bumblesnarf, which was one of my early cats and whose name was obviously taken from Bumblebee from “Transformers” and Snarf from “ThunderCats”. Animals have an integrity all by themselves. Whether we are talking about my animals or the ones that the Minister talks about in her speeches, there is something profoundly special about those little bundles of fluff, something very important, something that we should give due respect to in the way we treat them and the way they are treated by the law.
We know that there has been a huge increase in animal cruelty, especially during lockdown. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has dealt with 106,676 incidents—an average of 790 a day. I thank the hon. Member for West Dorset for introducing the Bill, which has taken many different forms and iterations over the past few years. It has been a baton passed from the Labour party to the Conservatives, and vice versa.
It is important to say early on that the Bill enjoys cross-party support. We want to see it progress and will be supporting it today. We will not push any of our amendments to a vote, because that ensures that fewer Members are required today, at a time of national lockdown, but we will seek to divide the House on Report. I hope, looking at the Minister, that she can give a nod that says the Bill will be considered on Report, will be adopted by the Government and will be pushed through the House, particularly because we know that the end of the Session is coming up and, if there is no carry-over motion, this Bill will fall, as all the others have done. It sometimes seems that the Bill enjoys so much support that it does not get enough attention to actually be placed on the Government agenda for parliamentary business. I hope that that will be different this time round.
Raising the maximum sentence for animal cruelty is common sense and has support across the House. That would also bring England and Wales in line with Canada, Australia, Latvia, New Zealand and, closer to home, Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. The truth is that the Bill has been in the long grass for far too long and has not had the attention it deserves. That means that its component parts and proposed amendments have not been given due attention. My amendment was first proposed to the Bill introduced in July 2016 by the then Labour MP for Redcar, Anna Turley, who deserves many thanks for all the work that she did in drafting the Bill and introducing it in such a clear, professional and non-partisan way.
The Government at the time said that they would support the Bill and even published a further Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny. We had that Bill in Committee last year, but it fell because of the general election. We now have this private Member’s Bill and I have written to the Secretary of State twice to ask him to find time to pass it before the end of the Session. As I mentioned, there is no time to waste.
This simple amendment would make it a more serious animal cruelty offence for the purpose of sentencing if the guilty person had filmed themselves committing the abuse. In a digital age, we see more and more cases of people filming abuse of animals, partly for their own perverse enjoyment, partly because they want to share the film on social media, and partly because they fail to recognise that in so doing they encourage others to do the same.
The former MP for Redcar, Anna Turley, who campaigned relentlessly on the issue, used a specific example to illustrate the point. If the Committee will forgive me, I shall use it again now. She raised the case of Baby the bulldog, a dog from Redcar that was filmed being horrendously abused. I will borrow a quote from RSPCA inspector Gemma Lynch about what happened to Baby. She said Baby was
“totally submissive throughout, not even making a noise when she lands on the stairs, bouncing to the foot of them where there is a baby gate which she crashes into before hitting the ground.”
Frankish, the abuser,
“is saying… ‘one, two three’ before hurling her down them. He is clearly enjoying himself—he’s laughing and smiling. The whole horrible ordeal sems to be for his and the younger man’s entertainment, for fun.”
“shows him stamping on her neck repeatedly at the bottom of the stairs, then picking her up and throwing her to the ground with force over and over again. He’s laughing hysterically.... Another clip shows him standing on Baby’s chest with his full body weight at the top of the stairs, before jumping up and down on her. This is the only time you hear her make a noise, and she is crying throughout… The younger man says, ‘See if we can make it scream any more. We should throw it down the stairs by its ears” before Frankish
“picks her up against the wall and headbutts her twice, then throws her down the stairs again. Everyone who has seen the video says it’s the most distressing thing they’ve ever seen. These are people who have seen a lot of horrible things.”
I am sorry for putting everyone through that, but it is important to understand the examples that the amendment would deal with and to show just what cruelty and abuse people can inflict on animals.
Sadly, Baby was put down three months later after losing the use of her back legs as a result of her injuries from such abhorrent abuse. What makes the case so cruel and inhumane is that the abusers filmed themselves performing those despicable acts, as though they were proud of what they were doing or wanted to hold on to the memories of that abuse. The two men pleaded guilty to causing unnecessary suffering to Baby the bulldog by subjecting her to unnecessary physical violence, an offence under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. They were given a six-month suspended sentence and were tagged, under a curfew between 8 pm and 6 am, and they paid £300 in costs. Was that justice for Baby?
When Anna promoted the Bill, she referred to Baby’s law. Whether it is for Baby or for the countless other animals that we all know examples of, there is an urgent need to address the lack of a digital component—a filming component—in the legislation. This adds an extra component because it furthers the abuse by building on the power play that the people who abuse animals seek. This is about power. We should not underestimate that.
The need to crack down on filming animal abuse grows more urgent by the day. In 2015, the RSPCA investigated 27 cruelty complaints that involved images or videos shared on Snapchat. By 2019, the figure was 62 —a 130% increase.
A survey for the RSPCA showed that at least 46% of young people have witnessed animal cruelty: 28% have seen it on TV or in a film, and 18% have witnessed it on social media. Nearly one young person in five has witnessed animal abuse on social media. According to the survey, the majority who saw it online saw it on Facebook. That tended to be footage of real cruelty against pet animals shared by a stranger. We cannot stand by and let the abuse of defenceless animals continue and then expose our children to those horrifying acts.
I recognise that the Government are taking steps with the online harms White Paper—another measure that has been too long in the making—but that does not cover the specific aspect that the amendment covers. I suspect that the Minister will not support the amendment, but perhaps she would commit to speaking to colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that the particular elements of the digital abuse of animals can be included in any of the Department’s plans.
I want Baby’s law to be passed, and I want it to send a strong message to people who not only abuse animals, but choose to film that and post the images online. Sharing the abuse encourages greater abuse and seeks, by having more people witness it, to desensitise. That makes it worth amending the Bill to provide for an extra consideration in sentencing. I encourage Members to support the amendment, although we shall not press it to a vote, for the reasons I gave. I hope to revisit the matter on Report.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Dame Angela, particularly given your long record of fighting for animal welfare.
I want briefly to echo many of the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport. Labour entirely supports the Bill and would like it to have reached the statute book years ago, when the previous Member for Redcar introduced its first iteration to the House in 2016. It is disappointing and frustrating that it has taken so long to get to this stage, and that the Bill is the second of its nature to be considered in Committee. I congratulate the hon. Member for West Dorset on his perseverance and wish him luck in getting the Bill on the statute book. We are concerned about time running out and, as my hon. Friend has said, we are looking for guidance from the Minister and want to hear that the Government will get behind the measure. We urge her to be clear about the timetable.
We fully back the Bill. It is imperative that those who perpetrate cruelty against animals should be subject to a penalty that matches the seriousness of their crime. It is clear that the maximum penalty in England and Wales of six months in prison, an unlimited fine and being banned from keeping animals is inadequate. Many of us were present on Second Reading and heard numerous examples of sentences whose severity simply did not match awfulness of the crimes.
There is already a five-year maximum sentence in Northern Ireland, and Scotland matched that in July. It seems to us that we need parity of sentencing across the UK and an end to the bewildering state of affairs whereby England and Wales are left with some of the lowest maximum sentences in the world.
As my hon. Friend has said, there are concerns that we want briefly to explore through our amendments. We very much agree with the previous MP for Redcar, who introduced the first Bill, that the filming of cruelty against animals should be considered an aggravating factor by courts in considering the offence. It is already listed as one in the sentencing guidelines to the 2006 Act, but we think it is important that that should be in the Bill.
We have heard that one of the overwhelming issues in the deeply distressing case of Baby the bulldog was the fact that those involved filmed themselves. People not only abusing animals, but recording it and, nowadays, sharing it on social media, with the intention of glorifying and amplifying the abuse, should be taken into account.
We are in a changing world. The Internet Watch Foundation is close to the Cambridge and frequently tells me about its work, which is an ongoing struggle in the online world. Exactly as my hon. Friend said, I hope the Minister will have a word with her colleagues in DCMS about making sure that that aspect of the matter is taken into account in any future legislation.
As the available technology changes, the law must keep up. To abuse innocent animals and, not only that, to record the abuse for entertainment shows, I am afraid, a malicious intent that should be considered an aggravating factor in sentencing.
It is a great pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Dame Angela.
The very unfortunate delay in the passage of the Bill was caused, as hon. Members across the House will understand, by the need to find an appropriate parliamentary slot in what has been a stretched timetable in the past few years. We have had to deal with Brexit and then, of course, we were hit, just as every workplace has been, by the covid pandemic. That naturally reduced the number of hours we could sit, and severely curtailed what we could do, but I reassure Members that the Government are absolutely committed to increasing custodial penalties in sentencing for animal cruelty. We will do all we can to support the Bill’s swift passage through both the Commons and the other place.
Perhaps I may have a useful conversation with Opposition Members about how we all work together to manage that. This morning, I had a very useful conversation with Mr Speaker about the Bill, and he is a big supporter of animal welfare. We all wish the Bill—and its champion, my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset—well during the next stages of consideration. The more we can do to work together, the better.
Both hon. Gentlemen who have spoken mentioned the great deal of consensus across the House on the passage of the Bill. Sadly, we have also heard once again about Baby the bulldog. That tale gets no easier in the retelling. I thank both hon. Gentlemen, who set the scene well. I am, I am afraid, going to resist the amendment, not because I do not agree with their sentiments, but because I am not sure that it is the best way in which to deal with the issue.
Aggravating factors are most often dealt with in the sentencing guidelines for an offence, not within the statute. A select number of offences relating to terrorism and domestic violence are exempt from that general rule. For most offences, normal practice is for other aggravating factors to be included in the sentencing guidelines. Those are not unimportant documents. From my experience as a lawyer, I know that the courts are required to follow those guidelines when determining the appropriate sentence in any particular case.
The sentencing guidelines on animal cruelty were drawn up by the Sentencing Council and were last reviewed in April 2017, following public consultation. Those include guidelines on
“the use of technology to publicise or promote cruelty”,
which is already considered an aggravating factor. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been in contact with the Sentencing Council about the Bill and, if we park the Bill, the council will need to reassess its guidelines. It will conduct another review. It will also consult publicly on the new guidelines.
I have been looking at other examples of guidelines relating to filming. Perhaps the best, and the one that I suspect I would suggest to the Sentencing Council, is found in the sentencing guidelines for robbery when sentencing children and young people, which includes the aggravating factor of
“the filming of the offence… or circulating details/photos/videos etc of the offence on social media or within peer groups”.
That is to be considered specifically by the court when sentencing the offender.
I realise the importance of the Sentencing Council, but there have been examples of it being resistant to moves in the right direction. For example, on pet theft recently, it has not listened to the sentiments of many Members and the public. What is the Minister’s view of those occasions when the Sentencing Council is resistant to moving in the right direction?
My hon. Friend has campaigned hard on pet theft, and he and I have enjoyed debating it on many occasions. He knows that we feel as one on the issue. I should emphasise that the Sentencing Council is of course independent of the Government, but it is only right for the Government to make suggestions. I am outlining the suggestion that I feel would be the best-practice sentencing guideline, which I hope the council will make if we pass the Bill—I very much hope we will. I suggest a guideline similar to the one for the robbery offence that I outlined.
In addition to the sentencing guidelines, legislation —one piece specifically—provides an offence that could cover 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 charge to bring, but it is possible that someone filming an act of animal cruelty or sharing it could be charged with an offence under that section. That would result in a maximum sentence of six months for the offence of posting the offensive message. I am happy to speak to DCMS colleagues further about this, and I will do so as the Bill progresses.
In brief, there are existing options to ensure that the offenders who film and upload or distribute footage of their animal cruelty are met with an appropriate response. This is an horrific crime, and filming it to share with others is beyond comprehension. We will discuss this matter further with the Sentencing Council, and when it reviews the guidelines we will ensure that this point is raised during the public consultation. On that basis, I ask the hon. Gentleman not to press the amendment.
On the basis that we will be seeking to press this amendment and explore it further on Report, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. I am grateful to you and to fellow members of the Committee for joining me here today.
I first address the matter of the timeliness of the Bill. I want to give all members of the Committee confidence that my colleagues who feel passionate about the Bill and I are doing all that we can to ensure that the Bill progresses in this parliamentary Session. We continue to actively lobby the Leader of the House and others to ensure that we can do that. I would warmly welcome any further support on that matter.
The Bill, which received its Second Reading in the House on
As I mentioned on Second Reading, I was inspired to bring forward this Bill by my own dog, Poppy, a springer spaniel I rescued after she had been abandoned on the roadside on a stormy night several years ago in my home constituency of West Dorset. It was clear that she had been very much mistreated. We have heard many cases of animal cruelty outlined over the course of this Bill, both in this Session and in previous Sessions, whether in Finn’s law, Poppy’s law or others; there are many that I know people feel strongly about. None the less, this Bill is short and non-controversial, in my view, but could have a profound effect on animal welfare.
Clause 1 is the Bill’s main clause. It outlines the mode of trial and maximum penalty for certain animal welfare offences. As the current maximum custodial sentence is proposed to be extended to five years, these offences will become triable either way and may be heard in either the magistrate’s 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 Animal Welfare Act 2006. 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.
Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which the 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 Islands”.
Animals not commonly domesticated, such as wildlife, are protected animals to the extent that they are under the control of man or are not living in their wild state.
Subsection (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, but to date that section has not been commenced. The clause reflects that position. In practice, this means that the existing maximum penalty of six months and/or unlimited fine is retained if the offender is summarily convicted. However, with the passing of the Bill, offenders may receive a higher penalty of up to five years’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine if they are convicted on trial by indictment.
The current maximum penalties for animal cruelty offences of six months’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine have been in place for more than 20 years. I recall that on Second Reading we debated the fact that the previous restrictions were brought in by a private Member’s Bill some time ago. However, since the Animal Welfare Act 2006 came into force, volumes of prosecutions have been a little over 1,000 a year, with a conviction rate of around 80%. Those found guilty of general animal cruelty have a 10% chance of receiving a custodial sentence. The average custodial sentence is around 3.5 months and, as we debated on Second Reading, if there is a guilty plea, it is often much less. However, each year we hear more terrible stories about how animals have suffered at the hands of people who are—unbelievably—sometimes their owners.
The Bill will mean that perpetrators who harm an animal by causing unnecessary suffering, mutilation or poisoning will finally be subject to the full force of the law. That includes cases of systematic cruelty, like the deliberate, calculating and sadistic behaviour of the ruthless gangs who use dog fighting to fuel organised crime. This Bill will mean that the courts will have sentences at their disposal commensurate to the most serious cases, so that the punishment fits the crime. Offences such as fly-tipping can carry penalties of up to five years in prison. It is not right, therefore, that torturing a sentient being—an animal—to death leads today to a maximum penalty of just six months’ imprisonment. The clause will ensure that, in those rare but shocking cases, offenders are properly punished. The new maximum sentence will also send a clear signal to any future offenders that animal cruelty will not be tolerated.
Clause 2 provides the extent, commencement and short title of the Bill. Subsection (1) provides that the Bill extends to England and Wales only. Animal welfare is a fully devolved matter, but the Welsh Government have confirmed that the maximum penalty should also apply in Wales, so the Bill is drafted on that basis. The Welsh Government are preparing a legislative consent motion so that the Bill can be extended and applied in Wales. Subsection (2) provides the date of commencement: the Act will come into force two months after Royal Assent is received. Clause 2 also ensures that the application of revised maximum penalties is not retrospective and does not apply to offences committed before the Bill comes into force. It also specifies the short title as the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act 2020.
For the reasons that I have set out, I hope the Committee will agree that clauses 1 and 2 should stand part of the Bill.
I support the comments from the hon. Gentleman, who has done a good job in building cross-party support in his usual way. Clauses 1 and 2 are good and we will not oppose them.
I want to pose a question to the Minister about clause 1 and disqualification. The proposal to increase maximum sentences from six months to five years is welcome. It will of course be up to the court to decide the point on that scale for any offence. The Dogs Trust has raised the point about issuing disqualification orders where the court has imposed the maximum penalty, to ensure that those convicted of the most extreme animal cruelty and receiving the maximum penalty face mandatory disqualification.
The courts are able to issue disqualifications. It is important to note that at the moment disqualifications are regarded not as part of the punishment but as part of measures to prevent future abuse of animals. However, the Dogs Trust makes a strong case for mandatory disqualification in the event of maximum penalties being imposed, as provided for by the Bill.
There certainly have been recent examples, such as that reported yesterday in Plymouth’s local paper, The Herald, of poor Riot, an American pocket bully-type dog in Plymouth, who had her ears cropped. She was seized by the RSPCA and, thankfully, rehomed. The courts chose not to issue a disqualification order on the owner. That would be one of those points that the public does not understand: how someone can be convicted of severe animal cruelty but not be automatically disqualified. I appreciate that that point sits complementary to clause 1, but I would be grateful if the Minister addressed it in her response.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset, whose family has farmed in west Dorset for four generations. I know that they have all been committed to the care of their animals and that he feels very strongly about the subject matter of the Bill.
As we have heard, the Bill would make a significant change to the way in which people who commit serious offences against animals will be dealt with by the courts. By increasing the maximum custodial penalty from six months to five years, it enables cases to be heard when necessary in the Crown court. That will largely depend on the seriousness of the case, but the defendants will also have a say in that matter, on whether they would like their case to heard in a higher court and in front of a jury. The legal system is well placed to make those decisions.
I am glad that the Welsh Government have confirmed that the proposed new maximum penalty should also apply in Wales. Scotland and Northern Ireland have already set the maximum penalty for such offences at five years. We do not take increasing maximum penalties for offences lightly. There must be a proven need to do so. As my hon. Friend said earlier, in some cases magistrates have commented in open court that they would have passed longer sentences had that been available to them.
The increase in maximum penalties follows from an amendment made in 2019, known as Finn’s law, which provided better protection for service animals. I am sure that hon. Members will remember that Finn is a police dog who was stabbed by an assailant he had restrained. Despite incurring serious wounds, Finn ensured that the attacker was caught. He recovered from his injuries and returned to duty before eventually retiring from the service. I was pleased to meet him on one of his trips to Parliament. When this Bill is enacted, it will ensure not only that offenders who have caused harm to service animals are brought to justice, but that they will face stiffer penalties.
The Government have listened to those magistrates and thousands of others who have called for an increase in the maximum custodial penalty for animal cruelty. We consider it right and proper that people convicted of such offences should face the prospect of longer sentences. We have heard not only of magistrates wanting to impose longer sentences, but of cases where the maximum penalty has been the current maximum of six months, which goes over and above the sentencing guidelines. All this is evidence that stricter sentences are needed to allow the courts the flexibility to impose suitable penalties in the most extreme cases.
The question of lifetime disqualifications, or indeed for any period of time, was raised by the hon. Gentleman for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, and has been raised by the Dogs Trust several times. Courts already have the power to impose post-conviction orders on those convicted of an animal cruelty offence under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, and the length is determined by the court, having taken into consideration all the aspects of a case. I know that, as a lawyer, I am biased in favour of letting the court do its work, but I feel that where a judge or magistrate has heard the evidence, seen the witnesses and looked in detail at what has happened in a case, they are best placed to make those decisions. Disqualification orders can be imposed for any length of time at the moment, including for life, and if a disqualification order is not considered necessary or appropriate, the court already has to indicate why. That is an appropriate way to allow those who have heard the evidence at first hand to deal with disqualifications, and the courts are willing and able to use them where appropriate.
There is a great deal of consensus about this Bill, and I ask all Members to get behind my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset and pass it.
I thank everyone who has contributed to this short but constructive debate and all members of the Committee who are not here today. They have been great supporters of this small but important change in the law, and I ask every Member, and indeed every supporter, to continue until we get this Bill over the line. I also thank all those who have campaigned for it, including the RSPCA, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, the League Against Cruel Sports, the Dogs Trust, Cats Protection, the Blue Cross and the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation, which have all provided support and momentum, not just in this place, but across the nation to get this over the line.
I also thank the Minister, Lord Goldsmith in the other place, my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point and my right hon. and learned Friend