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Sentience and Welfare of Animals — [Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:36 pm on 16th March 2020.

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Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 5:36 pm, 16th March 2020

It will give me enormous pleasure to agree to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that. I am a former officer of the all-party parliamentary group on cats and, indeed, the proud keeper—I certainly would not call myself the owner—of Midnight, voted parliamentary cat of the year the year before last. He definitely keeps me fully under control and has no difficulty in telling me about all his welfare needs.

Until 31 December, we are covered by article 13 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union, but the Government have committed to introducing new laws on sentience, as we heard many times. We had an extremely clear manifesto commitment to do that, and I confirm that we will do so as soon as we can, but I am sadly unable to say exactly when that will be.

Obligations on keepers of animals under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 make it an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to any animal, and anyone responsible for an animal must take reasonable steps to ensure that the animal’s welfare needs are met. At this point, I thank those vets, charities and animal welfare organisations working around the clock with Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs officials in these difficult times of reacting to the spread of the coronavirus to develop guidance for pet and livestock owners. We want to help owners and keepers to take proportionate hygiene measures while supporting animal welfare.

My hon. Friend Sir David Amess spoke of the comfort that animals can give us in these frightening times, which was an important, well-made point. We are pleased to support the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill, a private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend Chris Loder, who has just popped out of the room. It had its First Reading on 5 February 2020. It is the same Bill that the Government introduced in the last Parliament, and this small but critical piece of legislation will increase maximum sentences for animal welfare abuses tenfold, from six months to five years. It was good to hear the breaking news during the debate that we will next hear about this important Bill on 12 June.

I understand the concerns raised about the loss of protections as we leave the EU. I have never spoken ill of Government lawyers, and I certainly would not like to start now, but article 13 of the Lisbon treaty was proposed and promoted by UK Government lawyers. It states, as I think we all agree, that animals are sentient beings and that the EU and member states should pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals when formulating and implementing policies, but only in relation to a limited number of EU policy areas. Article 13 also provides some wide-ranging exemptions for cultural and religious practices and so on. It does not—I hesitate to criticise it, but we must—confer directly applicable rights or legally enforceable requirements. Frankly, it does not provide the sort of protection for animals that we want going forward.

Now that we have left the EU, we have the opportunity, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West said so powerfully, to do things differently and in a way that reflects the importance we attach to animal welfare. Of course, what really matters is that we can enforce standards of animal welfare. I listened with interest to my hon. Friend James Daly. We must find a way to ensure that sentencing acts as a deterrent, and I am extremely happy, given my legal background, to have many conversations with him about that, so we shall take that offline.

We have some world-leading animal protections in place in this country. Alex Davies-Jones will be pleased that we have introduced a ban on the commercial third-party sale of puppies and kittens, known as Lucy’s law, and I pay tribute to the charity from her constituency that worked on that. The ban will help to clamp down on puppy farming and to ensure that our much-loved pets have the best start to their lives. It comes into force on 6 April, which will be welcomed.