It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and to follow John Howell. Unsurprisingly, I, like many hon. Members, have been inundated with constituents’ emails and letters about animal sentience. We are a nation of animal lovers; nearly half of UK households have pets—we own approximately 51 million pets.
Like us, animals are sentient beings with feelings and emotions, and can also experience suffering and pain. It is crucial that the Government recognise animal sentience and place animal welfare at the heart of their policy agenda. I am proud to belong to a party that prioritises the welfare of animals: the Hunting Act 2004 banned fox hunting, while the Animal Welfare Act 2006 protected the treatment of domestic animals.
This month, the Barnsley Brownies collected food and treat donations for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals animal centre. Their charity badges are well-earned symbols of their compassion and kindness. Programmes such as the RSPCA’s generation kindness project help to teach those important values to schoolchildren and influence how they treat animals and each other. I encourage the Government to recognise the importance of those values.
The national curriculum should contain lessons on how to take care of animals, especially wild animals that have been taken from their natural environment and need to be returned safely and unharmed. No animal should be forced to endure unnecessary suffering. People who purposely harm animals for their own enjoyment, or simply because they believe that the pain of animals is beneath their consideration, should be appropriately punished.
The RSPCA’s 24-hour cruelty line receives, on average, a phone call every 30 seconds. In a single year, more than 1,000 reports were made in Barnsley alone. I have worked closely with the RSPCA in Barnsley and seen at first hand the work it does, particularly when I travelled around the local area with an RSPCA inspector over an afternoon. It is not enough that those convicted of animal cruelty offences receive merely a slap on the wrist. We need tougher sentences to prevent those who might do harm to innocent creatures from doing so. All animals, domestic or wild, should be protected by the same five-year maximum sentence.
I call on the Government to enshrine animal welfare standards in UK law so that public authorities pay attention to animals’ welfare needs as sentient beings when implementing public policy. We need legislation that recognises the sentience of animals, acknowledges their capacity to feel, and commits to protecting them as creatures deserving of respect.