2nd reading speech to the Animal Welfare (Sentencing Bill)
I strongly welcome the measures in this short, simple Bill. I emphasise “simple”, because that is how it needs to stay in order to get it implemented quickly. The changes are long promised, long needed and long overdue.
There is a perception among many people, including, importantly, members of the judiciary, that the sentences available to the courts at the moment to deal with serious offences of cruelty are inadequate, despite the UK having some of the most progressive animal welfare legislation in the world. As we have heard, the maximum penalty for the most serious cases of animal cruelty is still only a maximum of six months in prison, an unlimited fine and/or a ban on keeping animals. Given the level of serious animal neglect, cruelty and violence against animals every day, that does not seem to be acting as a deterrent.
The Minister gave the example of the man who received only a 26-week jail term after he was found guilty of kicking a four-month-old puppy to death. We heard from the shadow Secretary of State about another example, that of the Lancashire man who received only a 22-week sentence and was disqualified from keeping animals for life after the RSPCA obtained a video of him setting his dogs on a pet cat and a fox.
When we compare ourselves with every other European country, we see that the maximum sentence for cruelty to animals in England and Wales is woeful. A substantial number of European countries have already legislated for a maximum sentence of between two and three years, and in some cases it is up to five years, as the Minister pointed out. Further afield, Canada, Australia and New Zealand already offer a maximum of five years’ imprisonment. Even within the United Kingdom, the maximum sentences in England and Wales pale in comparison with Scotland’s one-year sentencing power and, even more so, with Northern Ireland’s sentencing power of up to five years. I pay tribute to Northern Ireland for having made progress on this before any other devolved Administration or indeed the UK Parliament. I also recognise that Scotland has announced a consultation on proposals to increase sentences to five years, and I hope the Scottish Parliament sees that consultation through and implements stronger powers, so that we can all be in line and be in the same place as a United Kingdom.
There are several reasons why sentences for animal cruelty need to be increased, not the least of which is that public attitudes have no doubt changed in the 10 years since the passing of the 2006 Act. I served on its Bill Committee and I recall the contribution of Bill Wiggin, who led for the shadow team. I remember those sittings clearly. It is now becoming more obvious that the courts, too, want to be given the option to pass tougher sentences for extreme forms of cruelty, with many magistrates and judges asking for an increase in the punishments they have at their disposal. Without this increase in sentencing powers we could also be in the invidious position of facing the prospect of no prison terms for animal cruelty or for fighting with animals being available to the courts, if the Ministry of Justice’s proposal to abolish sentences of six months or less is taken forward and implemented. We need to bear that in mind, and it is another reason why this legislation is so important.
I also want to draw attention to the link with domestic abuse. Blue Cross has pointed out that research clearly suggests a link between animal abuse, domestic abuse and other serious crimes. It found that women in domestic violence shelters were 11 times more likely to report that a partner had hurt or killed pets in the home, as the shadow Secretary of State pointed out. The research also shows a direct correlation between cases of animal abuse and cases of child abuse, with children at risk in 83% of families with a history of animal abuse. It should not surprise any of us to hear of that. We need to do more as a society to join up the investigative powers of social services, the education system and the animal welfare charities, which work so hard to identify cases of animal abuse in homes up and down the country. We could do more to encourage joint working between these different agencies and charities to raise awareness of where the risk lies to animals, children and women, and to people generally.
Before I draw my comments to a conclusion, I want to pay tribute to the Chair of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, of which I am a member, for his leadership of our inquiry—the pre-legislative scrutiny we carried out on the original Bill, which put animal sentience provisions and animal sentencing powers together in the one Bill. It was a very good inquiry, and the recommendation we clearly made was that the two sets of provisions needed to be separated and that we needed to implement the sentencing powers provisions quickly. I am only sorry that it has taken so long to get to this point. A number of Opposition Members have asked the Secretary of State repeatedly when we were finally going to see this Bill on the Floor of the House. We have got here now, so I will leave that there, and just say that I am thankful to be able, at last, to get this on to the statute book.
I hope that the Bill will quickly pass its legislative hurdles and gain Royal Assentlater this year, because we need to see these measures enacted. I take the point that there are various other issues that could be addressed in these provisions, such as extending the powers to cover cases involving wild animals, but I think we just need to get on and get this Bill through Parliament and on to the statute book. I know that the animal welfare charities are keen that that should be the case. I have been contacted and asked, “Please keep it simple.” So I understand the debate about other areas of animal welfare policy, but let us just get on with this. It is long overdue and we need to get on with it.
The measure is supported by all the major animal welfare charities. I pay tribute to the work on this issue by Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, Blue Cross, the Dogs Trust and the RSPCA, all of which are worthy charities that I have worked with over a significant number of years. I also wish to mention World Horse Welfare, which of course feels strongly about this issue and needs to be included in any list of tributes to the animal welfare sector for the campaign to increase the sentencing powers.
It is right that the situation in England and Wales comes into line with that in the rest of the UK and in other western countries. I repeat that the current limit of six months, which is often reduced by a third if the defendant pleads guilty, is clearly not adequate and does not act as a deterrent, as shown by the fact that many of the associations that deal with animal cruelty have reported increases in cruelty, especially of the most serious types, despite the Animal Welfare Act being on the statute book.
I conclude by saying again: can we please just get on with this and get it implemented? Let us give the courts the powers that they need.