New Clause 1 - Report on effects

Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:00 am on 3rd February 2021.

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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 Bill coming into force, a report on its effectiveness, 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 Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

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

This new clause relates to a discussion that we had on Second Reading about the relationship between this Bill and protections for wild animals. Although we will not be pressing it to a Division, we think this is an important issue.

Our new clause would require the Secretary of State to report back to Parliament on the Bill’s effectiveness within two years of it coming into force. That would include providing specific assessments of its effects on animal welfare and the overall coherence of UK animal welfare legislation in its entirety, including sentencing under specified Acts relating to wildlife, which are listed in the new clause.

The new clause is important, because as it stands the proposals in the Bill apply only to the Animal Welfare Act 2006, and therefore not to wild animals, in the way that they apply to domestic animals. The Bill of course improves the deterrence impact of penalties for cruelties that come under the Animal Welfare Act, but maximum penalties for cruelty offences under the legislation listed in new clause 1 remain at six months. Our concern is that that creates a two-tier system for penalties for cruelly against domestic and wild animals, even if by oversight as opposed to intention. That seems to lead to the possible situation in which torturing a pet cat and torturing a feral cat, or kicking to death a wild rabbit and a domesticated rabbit, could lead to different penalties. It is clear that offenders do not discriminate between wild and domestic animals in inflicting cruelty. We sadly heard in previous debates on various iterations of this legislation about a wild rabbit hit with a log and stabbed with a pen, a squirrel set on fire, and a driver putting down chips in a road to attract wild birds so that he could run them over.

The RSPCA’s most recent annual prosecution report from 2019 specifically lists notable cases it has seen against wildlife, including two men captured on a fly-tipping surveillance camera taking a live pheasant out of their boot and violently attacking it for several minutes, while a third man filmed the abuse on his phone. That reflects our earlier discussions. In November 2020, the RSPCA saw the horrific case of a man who tortured a hedgehog by cutting off its limbs and burning its head and eyes with candle wax. These things are so horrible that they are barely repeatable.

Our view is that those animals have the same welfare needs. Any attack on them has the same impact on their welfare, regardless of whether they are an animal in human care or in the wild. They all feel pain and suffer, and the people who harm them should feel the full force of the law.

When the Government’s 2019 version of this Bill was in Committee, Members heard evidence from solicitor Mike Schwarz, who expressed his concerns that a two-tier approach to domestic and wild animals could end in confusion for the judiciary and prosecutors. He warned:

“the danger of disparities and distortions, and even confusion, caused by the ramping up—that is not a critical comment—of maximum sentencing in one area, which is the domesticated and under-control-of-man area, while leaving well behind the maximum sentence in other areas. As you know, the disparity is between six months in most other areas—in the Hunting Act 2004, it is even less—and five years under the Bill. That may cause problems when it comes to sentencing.”

He also noted the very pertinent point that, when it comes to animal cruelty in this country,

“different sectors of the same activity—animal welfare, animal care, animal husbandry—are treated differently. I cannot think of an area, although I am happy to be corrected and I might be wrong, where there is that difference in sentencing when it comes to the same offence.”––[Official Report, Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Public Bill Committee, 23 July 2019; c. 12-13, Q18.]

We believe that after the passing of this Bill, a review is necessary to examine the level of penalties available to courts for cruelty offences across animal welfare legislation as a whole. As I say, 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 afterwards. The Opposition are quite clear that all animals are equal and deserve to be treated with respect and kindness, and we believe that that should be reflected properly in the law.

I also note that the then Minister, David Rutley, pointed out in Committee in 2019 that a review of wildlife legislation had recently been undertaken, with the Law Commission publishing proposals for a simpler and more flexible framework in 2015. I understand that the Government’s response to that report made it clear that they had no intention of implementing those recommendations in the immediate future, yet the Minister seemed to stress at the previous Committee that, with the UK’s exit from the EU, the Government may re-examine those proposals. I encourage this Minister to outline any intentions that the Government have so to do.

To conclude, I want to make a few comments about hare coursing. Although serious and organised cases of animal cruelty in the form of dog fighting will, we think, be prosecuted under this Bill, the equally serious and equally organised crime involved in hare coursing will likely not. Such instances currently fall under the Hunting Act 2004, and Crown Prosecution Service guidance suggests that the police in fact prosecute hare coursing offenders under the Game Act 1831.

It is a widely held view in the countryside, from farmers to rural police officers, that penalties for that crime are woefully inadequate as form of deterrent. Ministry of Justice data shows that from 2014 to 2018, average fines under the Game Act were just £227, yet this is a hugely disruptive crime, focused on animal cruelty, that is continuing to blight the lives of many farmers. In December only last year, a hare courser put a gun to a farmer’s head and threatened to shoot him at point-blank range during a confrontation in Wiltshire. It is a cause of persistent problems in Cambridgeshire, and regular representations to Government are made by Cambridgeshire MPs on a cross-party basis.

Frankly, the legislation is almost 200 years out of date. It was designed in a very different time, for a very different problem—certainly not for the brutal, international gambling-driven thugs that our long-suffering police officers have to deal with. Any indication from the Minister on what steps the Government intend to take to strengthen penalties for hare coursing would be very much welcomed—but, to put it simply, can we just get on with it?

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I rise in support of my hon. Friend’s remarks on extending the provisions to include wild animals. I take this from a simple perspective: how would we explain to a member of the public, or to a child, that one rabbit will be treated differently from another rabbit, depending on whether it is in a cage or in a field? How do we instil the same sense of value for both those animals if one is treated differently by the law from the other? There is a case here for including wild animals; I appreciate that the opportunity to include them in this Bill may not be immediately forthcoming, but I believe that is a clear and important part of ensuring that wild animals do matter—that all animals matter.

The second part of the new clause, which is worthy of being adopted by the Minister, is the two-year review of this legislation to see how it is working. One area in particular that needs to be looked at is the effects of the restrictions around coronavirus and covid-19 on animal cruelty. I mentioned in my earlier remarks that we have seen an increase in the number of cases of animal cruelty during these restrictions. It would be useful to policy makers and to those seeking to enforce this legislation if there was an assessment about its impacts on animal cruelty, at a time when we know animal cruelty is increasing, to see whether the deterrent effect is working.

In particular, it would be useful to assess how the provisions of the Bill can be better communicated to people, to ensure that they make better decisions before committing cruelty to an animal, recognising that there are now stronger and tougher penalties that equally are being used by the courts as a form of deterrence as well as a form of punishment. That is an element that could also be looked at.

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I note that the Animal Welfare Act 2006 was subject to review through the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee some time ago in 2010 and again, informally, through the EFRA inquiry “Animal welfare in England: domestic pets” in 2016. A broad consensus arose from that inquiry that the Animal Welfare Act had had a genuinely positive effect on animal welfare. The 2006 Act, of course, relates to animals within the control of humans, and indeed the 2016 inquiry encouraged the bringing forward of this Bill, which is partly why we are all here today.

Subsection (3)(a) of new clause 1 would commit the Government to including an assessment of wildlife. As we have heard, wildlife legislation is not within the scope of the Animal Welfare Act; only animals within the control of man are within scope. There are some exceptions, which I gently point out to the hon. Member for Cambridge: animals that are normally domesticated, such as cats and dogs, are within the scope of that Act, so even a feral cat would be covered. If a wild animal is trapped, it too would be considered to be within the control of man and would be covered by the Act.

There are, of course, separate pieces of legislation that deal with wild animals. We have already had a review of wildlife legislation at DEFRA’s request by the Law Commission, which undertook the wildlife law project. It published its recommendations in November 2015, and recommended that the existing pieces of wildlife legislation be replaced by a single statute. It did not recommend that we bring in the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which is, by broad consensus, operating quite efficiently. For those who are interested, the Ministry of Justice regularly publishes data on prosecutions, some of which we heard earlier, and on convictions and sentencing under the Animal Welfare Act 2006.

I understand the point being made, but the 2006 Act focuses on animals under the control of man. The penalties for wildlife crime—crime on wildlife in their natural habitat—are already enshrined in separate legislation. I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the issue of different maximum sentences for Animal Welfare Act offences and for offences relating to the welfare of wildlife. We can discuss that at any point, but the Animal Welfare Act 2006 is working well and should not be interfered with at this point.

Turning to the point made by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, it is generally standard procedure to review a Bill three years after it is brought into force. We will of course look at the impact of the Bill if we are able to get it through. In the last couple of weeks, we had an interesting Adjournment debate on the impact of covid on animal welfare organisations, and on their data on what was happening on the ground. In fact, the picture was not quite as bleak as that presented by the hon. Gentleman, but we have to keep that under very close review, and it may be that the full effects of the pandemic are not obvious because offences are hidden behind closed doors. We are very much keeping close to animal welfare organisations on that matter. With that in mind, I would resist passing the new clause.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 10:15 am, 3rd February 2021

I thank the Minister for her helpful comments. I suspect this matter will go on to be debated in future, but on the basis that we do not want to delay the Bill’s progress, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill to be reported, without amendment.

Committee rose.