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Prevention Of Cruelty To Animals

Volume 113: debated on Tuesday 31 March 1987

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3.54 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to give the police power of entry where a case of cruelty against an animal is suspected; to give the courts the power to ban people convicted of cruelty from keeping any type of animal; and to change the definition in law of captive animals to include wild animals that are unable to escape.

Britain is rightly known throughout the world as a nation of animal lovers. Nothing is more calculated to appear on our television screens or in our press than a picture with a animal and a happy ending. Our postbags groan daily with letters from constituents complaining about medical experimentation on animals and cases of animal cruelty. But beneath those Nets there is something less reassuring. Behind that traditional view of Britain there is an unattractive basis. There lurks beneath the gloss an ominous set of statistics. Cruelty to animals is a growth industry.

The 1986 figures from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, to which I pay tribute for its valiant work in this area, prove beyond doubt that animal cruelty in Britain is worse than ever before. In every region of England and Wales, the RSPCA has had to deal with more complaints this year than in previous years.

In the south-east region, the cautions and convictions for animal cruelty are up by nearly three times the previous year's figures. The north-west of England, which includes my constituency, has the dubious distinction of having the second highest cruelty rating in England and Wales. Cautions and convictions are up by nearly 50 per cent. and complaints are up by nearly 30 per cent. Behind those cold, though shocking, statistics are the real sufferers—starving and neglected dogs, pets who are tortured and beaten to death, animals impaled on spears and shot at with bows and airguns.

You may say, Mr. Speaker, that those actions are surely against the law. In some cases they are, but the extraordinary fact is that sometimes they are not. Equally extraodinary is the fact that sometimes the law is not strong enough to prevent animal cruelty.

The RSPCA and other similar agencies are doing a fine job, but the law on which they have to rely to do that job—the tool of their trade, as it were—is 76 years old. The Protection of Animals Act was passed in 1911 and times have changed since then. When I read of some of the cases that I have been given by the RSPCA, I sometimes wonder whether they have changed for the better.

It is time that Parliament played a further part in trying to prevent animals from suffering. That is what my Bill does. It is not a piece of major reform; it is limited in scope and has some modest objectives. However, it is an important and valuable measure which will help organisations, such as the RSPCA and many others, in their battle. My Bill has all-party support and I make no pretence about its being modelled closely on early-day motion 706, which has been signed by 106 right hon. and hon. Members from both sides of the House.

The Bill will tackle three glaring anomalies in the law. First, in some cases of suspected animal cruelty agencies such as the RSPCA are powerless to pursue their investigations. Under the existing law, where there is an instance or suspected instance of animal cruelty, the police are completely dependent on the suspected person allowing the police access to the premises where the incidents may be occurring. If that suspected person declines to allow the police to come in, it is difficult for inquiries to be pursued. My Bill would simply allow the police to apply to the courts for a search warrant for such premises and then to go in to see for themselves.

Right hon. and hon. Members are always concerned at any extension of police powers, but let me assure them that in this intance all the formalities, safeguards and procedures which apply to search warrants in other criminal matters would apply equally to cases of suspected animal cruelty. The Bill would simply give the police, and through them the RSPCA and similar bodies, the power to investigate and to do their job that much more effectively.

That anomaly is not the only aspect of the law that I consider weak, and that is therefore failing to stop cases of cruelty to animals. In a recent appalling case, the rotting remains of 31 dead cats were found in a house, and many more cats had to be destroyed because of the extent of their suffering. Incredibly—despite behaviour that can only be described as unspeakable—the owners could riot be banned from keeping any more cats, because the present law provides that a person must be convicted twice before he or she can be disqualified by the courts from keeping an animal.

If those 31 cats had been 31 dogs, however, such a requirement would not have applied. The first conviction for cruelty to a dog can result in a disqualification from keeping any more dogs. Where is the sense and logic in that? Why should one animal be treated differently from another? Surely, a person who has been convicted of cruelty to any animal must be prevented from repeating the offence, if that is a suitable punishment—it is a discretionary power for the courts. My Bill would rectify the present seemingly incomprehensible and inconsistent approach.

The law is also outdated when it comes to dealing with wild animals. Much publicity was given not long ago to the harrowing story of a hedgehog that was beaten to death by a young man, "just for fun". Yet that person's so-called "fun" was found by the court to be within the law, and he was acquitted of the charge.

The reason for his acquittal was quite simple: the hedgehog was not regarded as a captive animal within the meaning given to that phrase by the 1911 Act, and thus was not protected by the law. That is another example of a 76 year-old piece of legislation that is not relevant to our modern times. My Bill would widen the definition of a captive animal, and would thus bring more animals within the protection of the law.

This is the first time since I was elected to the House that I have had the good fortune to secure parliamentary time to promote a Bill. I am very pleased that my luck has coincided with the opportunity to change a law that has proved inadequate to protect animals from—in some instances—unspeakable cruelty. I feel that the day is long overdue for such a reform, and I hope that the House will show by its support for the Bill that the time has come to do something about it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. David Sumberg, Miss Janet Fookes, Mr. Alistair Burt, Mr. Jeremy Hanley, Mr. Geoffrey Lawler, Mr. Tony Favell, Sir Bernard Braine, Mr. Cecil Franks, Mr. Terry Lewis, Mr. Bob Litherland, Mr. Harry Greenway and Mr. Ian Wrigglesworth.

Prevention Of Cruelty To Animals

Mr. David Sumberg accordingly presented a Bill to give the police power of entry where a case of cruelty against an animal is suspected; to give the courts the power to ban people convicted of cruelty from keeping any type of animal; and to change the definition in law of captive animals to include wild animals that are unable to escape: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 1 May 1987 and to be printed. [Bill 128.]