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Sentencing Tariffs (Offences Against Animals)

Volume 568: debated on Tuesday 15 October 2013

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Weir. I am delighted to see the new Minister here. It is wonderful that a fellow west country Member of Parliament —the real west country: Devon and Cornwall—is in a ministerial position.

Animal baiting and fighting legislation was first introduced in the United Kingdom in 1835. Yet more than 175 years later, these most barbaric and cruel activities remain alarmingly prevalent. Despite dozens of individuals being prosecuted every year, acts of animal cruelty continue to a horrific extent. Additionally, the practice is associated with other criminality, such as drug dealing and firearms sales.

We in England and the United Kingdom cherish our pets. The fact that dogfighting still occurs today would astonish most people. A lot of people describe dog and cockfighting as sports, but there is nothing sporting in watching two dogs being made to tear each other apart. Sadly, examples of such barbaric animal cruelty are still too numerous in our society. It is astonishing that people still cause untold suffering to animals in this way. There have been all too many examples of the practice over the past few years.

Last year, in Derbyshire, a mutilated puppy was found by rescuers from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The dog, a west highland terrier cross, was found in a filthy, mangled state, abandoned in a box dumped in a country lane. Half of both his ears had been cut off and he was riddled with fleas. Cutting ears off is apparently a standard procedure for dogfighting, as they can be bitten by other dogs during a fight. To make dogs last longer in the pit, the ears are cut off by the gangs beforehand. It can also be done to make the dog look more aggressive. It would have been excruciating for this terrier, done by an unprofessional person with no anaesthetic. The dog was still terrified when found by its rescuers; he flinched whenever vets went near his ears, so he obviously associates them with pain.

The RSPCA said that the terrier was probably an abandoned or unwanted pet and added that many such pets end up in dogfighting pits. Often, families struggling to make ends meet can no longer cope with paying for pets, which oftentimes are left on the streets. There has been an increase in strays. The RSPCA warned that these pets can be picked up by dogfighting gangs.

One such gang was broken up in Oxfordshire in 2011, when a father and son admitted to training dogs for organised fights. They were jailed and banned from keeping dogs, following a major RSPCA investigation. The father admitted using equipment such as treadmills, weighted collars and rudimentary veterinary equipment to train the dogs. RSPCA inspectors discovered an emaciated bull terrier, as well as shocking footage of dogfighting, when they searched his home.

In March last year, another gang was broken up, following another covert operation by the RSPCA. It was found goading animals into fighting, as well as training dogs. Those convicted received 20-week custodial sentences.

It is welcome that these people are being brought to justice. The sentences they receive send a clear message to others involved in dogfighting or thinking of taking part. Sadly, these individuals are not the first people to be sent away for the brutal practice and they will not be the last. Furthermore, dogfighting is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ongoing animal cruelty.

In a cockfight, two roosters fight each other to the death, watched by people placing bets on the victor. If the birds survive, the organisers let them suffer untreated injuries or throw them away. They lie dead or dying in heaps. Left to themselves, roosters almost never hurt each other badly. However, in cockfights the birds often wear razor-sharp blades on their legs and get injuries such as punctured lungs, broken bones and pierced eyes, even when they survive.

Last October, a father and son were convicted of taking part in such a sick competition. RSPCA inspectors raided their homes and found evidence that they were at the heart of a global network of cockfighting. Together, they owned 484 birds bred for fighting, including 97 mature fighting cocks, and a cock-fighting pit. There were magazines and photographs, too, as well as evidence that the pair had travelled as far as South America to watch cockfights.

The RSPCA called the scene a “cockfighting factory”. It found more than 60 pairs of spurs, which are attached to birds’ feet to increase the damage inflicted, together with leg muffs, leg bands, beak muzzles and other blood-splattered veterinary items. Indeed, the pair were internationally renowned for their brutal practice. The father had featured on the front cover of an Asian cockfighting magazine. They exported the birds for fighting to Brazil, the Philippines and France, among other countries. Their birds had been fed with steroids to increase strength and stamina. Both men were given suspended sentences, large fines and community service, thanks to the RSPCA’s efforts. The question is, is that enough?

I highlight those cases to bring home the fact that animal cruelty in its most brutal form continues to plague our society and occurs even in this country. The most recent legislation on animal welfare is the Animal Welfare Act 2006. It was a welcome updating of the law on animals’ well-being, much of which was almost 100 years old. It simplified the legislation for enforcers and animal keepers by consolidating more than 20 pieces of legislation into one and eliminated many loopholes in the system.

The 2006 Act also ensured that people who organise animal fights, train animals for fights or publicise or record a fight, face the full force of the law. It sought to strengthen deterrence for persistent offenders by increasing penalties. For example, those causing unnecessary suffering to an animal could face up to 51 weeks in prison, a fine of up to £20,000, or both.

Despite that welcome legislation, the reports I mentioned show that more must be done to deter gangs who are organising these brutal blood sports. An already stretched RSPCA can only do so much to find the gangs carrying out these acts. It only has so many resources to pursue them through the courts. This is why we need to send a strong signal to individuals who may be, in any way, involved in the organisation of any sort of animal fighting, wrestling or baiting.

I suggest that penalties be doubled, allowing for custodial sentences of up to two years for particularly egregious cases of animal cruelty. That would send out a powerful signal to those engaged, or considering becoming engaged, in this brutal competition. It would give judges the necessary leeway to impose sentences they felt were appropriate to the crimes involved and ensure that people such as those I have mentioned faced the full force of the law and paid for their criminal brutality.

We are at something of a disadvantage in that the provisions for tougher sentences in the 2006 Act were never enacted. Will the Minister explain why? The most someone is likely to get, even for serious cases of animal cruelty, is a six-month sentence; in reality, they will probably only serve eight weeks.

Finally, I pay tribute to the tireless efforts of the RSPCA. Every year, it rescues and collects almost 120,000 animals. It finds new homes for about 60,000 of them. Another 60,000 animals are microchipped, helping them to stay safe. Ever since it was founded in 1824, the RSPCA has been a voice for animals throughout Britain. Despite facing countless difficulties in this time, it has always stayed true to its central charitable mission—namely,

“by all lawful means, prevent cruelty, promote kindness to and alleviate suffering of all animals”.

It is a charity that cares for all our animals, whether pets or companions, on farms or in laboratories.

Last year, the RSPCA secured more than 3,000 convictions by private prosecution. Its internal investigations unit looked into more than 160,000 complaints of alleged cruelty. It is especially worthwhile to highlight the work of the RSPCA at a time when donations are falling. The proportion of people giving to charity fell from 58% to 55% in 2011, according to the Charities Aid Foundation, and it is expected to have fallen again in 2012. As we all struggle with austerity, so do charities.

It is vital that we continue to support the work of charities such as the RSPCA, and any other animal welfare organisation, at this time. All the while, their workers and volunteers continue their efforts to ensure that vulnerable pets and animals receive the care they deserve. The examples of dog and cockfighting that I have raised today are proof that their work is much needed.

Animal cruelty in its worst form continues to take place in Britain. If we really cherish our pets in Britain, we should have an appropriate legislative framework to protect their well-being. We must give judges the power to punish the most egregious acts of animal brutality, and the measures I propose would do just that. The Government need to conduct a thorough review of sentences for issues beyond—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

As I was saying before the rug was pulled out from under my peroration, we must give judges the power to punish the most egregious acts of animal brutality. The measures that I have mentioned will, I hope, do just that. The Government need to conduct a thorough review of sentences for issues beyond just dog control. We should have the data, so that we can see how effective the 2006 Act is and whether more needs to be done.

I would be interested to know what objection the Government might have for not undertaking such a review. The Minister’s time to respond is limited, but I hope he can meet me and the RSPCA to discuss the issues in more detail. An increase in the maximum penalties, fines and jail sentences faced by those who are caught will signal that this country is no place for such barbarity. We might finally banish their cruelty from our society, once and for all. I think that we can all look forward to that.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders)—he is a fellow west country MP—on securing the debate and raising an issue that attracts a great deal of interest. He has always championed it, and I join him in praising the RSPCA for how it pursues some of the horrific cases that he outlined in his introduction.

I was personally interested in this area before I joined the Government. I served on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, and earlier this summer, as part of my research, I read an interesting report called “Unleashed”, which was written by an academic called Simon Harding. It looked at the phenomena of status and weapon dogs and tried to understand why we are seeing an increase in some types of dog fights.

There are three key types of dog fight. First, there are those awful dog fights where bets are placed. They often take place in private venues, and that is the type of thing that my hon. Friend mentioned. Secondly, there is what they call “back of van” fights or trunking, which are awful. The idea came from the US, where they lock dogs in the boot of a car to fight it out. The third type, which some of the evidence suggests has had the greatest increase, is chain rolling, where dogs are used as an alternative to a knife and there are impromptu fights in parks. There has been a significant increase in reports to the RSPCA of illegal fights of that sort.

A further problem has been the growth of the internet, which has made some of these crimes easier to commit. That point has been highlighted by a great many of the animal welfare charities. We have the awful problem of the different terms and code words used in internet advertising for dogs designed to be sold for fighting, such as red-nosed, game-proven, game-bred and blocky. I welcome what the Pet Advertising Advisory Group has done to try to tighten that up by creating a new code of conduct for those companies that advertise pets.

The Government deplore acts of animal cruelty and believe that offenders deserve the full force of the courts. Our responsibility is to ensure that the legislation is fit for purpose. My hon. Friend asked whether we would review the legislation. We reviewed the main legislation that protects the welfare of kept animals—the Animal Welfare Act 2006—in 2010.

The report prepared by my Department and sent to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee for its consideration concluded that there was broad agreement that the 2006 Act has genuinely had a positive impact on animal welfare. It successfully brought together a number of different pieces of legislation into a comprehensive whole and placed a duty of care on those who are responsible for animals. The 2006 Act also introduced a preventive measure that has allowed action to be taken without animals suffering unnecessarily. Although the consultation highlighted some concerns that more could be done to speed up court cases involving seized animals, it did not cast doubt on the adequacy of maximum sentences.

Of course, legislation must set maximum penalties. It is then for the courts—usually the magistrates court for animal welfare cases—to take a view on what sentence should be given. Judges and magistrates have a great deal of discretion in sentencing. In coming to a view, they are helped by specific sentencing guidelines produced by the Sentencing Council, which has been responsible since 2010 for providing detailed guidance to courts on the appropriate sentence for individual cases.

Sentencing guidelines help to achieve consistency in deciding the type and length of sentence and set out the factors that should be considered in those decisions. The guidelines set out how a judge or magistrate can decide on the seriousness of a particular offence, and then determine the appropriate sentence. Of course, the circumstances of different cases can vary quite widely and that can explain the different sentences handed out. The guidance to magistrates covers cases of animal cruelty for offences committed under the 2006 Act and helps magistrates to impose an appropriate penalty. Those guidelines were last updated in 2008 and reflect the current penalties available.

The Government’s responsibility is to ensure that the courts have the flexibility to impose the appropriate sentence within acceptable ranges. To that end, the 2006 Act makes it an offence to cause any unnecessary suffering to an animal. That offence carries a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment or a fine of £20,000 or, crucially, both. Someone found guilty of organising or participating in a dog fight, along the lines that my hon. Friend described, could receive both a fine of £20,000 and a prison sentence of six months. Six months is the highest sentence available to a magistrates court and the fine is much greater than the usual £5,000 limit.

In addition, the 2006 Act makes it an offence to fail to provide an animal with its welfare needs. That offence can attract a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment or a fine of £5,000, or both. The offender can also be disqualified from owning an animal in future.

As I was coming to work yesterday morning, there was a Staffordshire bull terrier-type dog dead in the Thames. I hear what the Minister says, and I commend the Government’s action on increasing fines and sentences, but what action has specifically been taken to stop the people involved from owning those dogs again, legally or illegally, and what action has been taken to stop these dog fights taking place?

There are a number of measures under which we can do that. Under the 2006 Act, which was introduced by the previous Government, people can be disqualified from owning dogs. Through that Act, Parliament tightened up the earlier legislation. The courts now have to state why they would not impose such a disqualification, rather than it being left entirely up to them.

My concern is on the safeguards to ensure that someone who is banned cannot own a dog again by legal means. What evidence do we have that someone owns a dog, even if they are banned? How do we impose that ban? That is the issue that I was raising.

Clearly, it is for the courts and the police to enforce the bans. Other bits of legislation related to dog welfare and, in particular, breeding, contain anti-avoidance clauses, so that if someone has five litters of dogs being bred on a premises—regardless of who owns or claims to own those dogs—they are caught by the law and require a licence. There are elements of legislation that do that, and I am here to set out what the law states. I commend what the previous Government did in introducing the 2006 Act. As I said, it requires the courts to state why they would not impose such a disqualification.

I realise that some people would like to see the maximum limits raised, but we need to be clear why such a move is deemed desirable by those calling for such an increase. Is it because the maximum limits are considered to be low compared with other similar offences? If we make that point, however, we should compare them with the maximum penalties for other crimes, such as assaulting a police officer, which can attract six months of imprisonment, a fine of £5,000 or both. The maximum penalty available for acts of antisocial behaviour, under the new Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, will be three months, a fine or both.

My hon. Friend mentioned the Animal Welfare Act provision to increase sentences to 51 weeks. I think that he was referring to a scheme called “custody plus”, but it is not quite true that that would relate to a custodial sentence of 51 weeks; in fact, the sentence was always intended to be a combination of community service and imprisonment. It was not simply an increase—a mixture was always intended.

Alternatively, is an increase intended to act as a deterrent? The Government, however, have received no indication from magistrates that the penalties for animal cruelty cases should be increased because they are having to impose more and more penalties towards the upper end of the range. Crucially, for no convictions has a judge handed out the maximum sentence of six months. We therefore have to ask, why increase the maximum, if the existing one is not being used by the courts?

To give an example of the penalties handed down by magistrates over the past three years, convictions under the Animal Welfare Act have been roughly 1,000 a year; typically, about 10% of those have been sentenced to imprisonment, with the remainder getting a fine. That does not indicate to me that magistrates consider that the maximum penalties for animal cruelty should be increased. I understand the points made by hon. Members about increasing maximum sentences, but there does not seem to be evidence to suggest that a review is necessary, especially given that the issue was reviewed most recently in 2008.

My hon. Friend has, however, brought up an important subject for debate, which we all recognise as a growing problem, and the Government have introduced additional bits of legislation to deal with dangerous dogs, such as community protection notices or criminal behaviour orders, which allow the courts to ban people from owning or breeding dogs, or to require dogs to be neutered—a whole suite of other policies applies there.

My hon. Friend asks whether I am willing to meet him and the RSPCA, and of course I am, although the area is the responsibility of my noble friend Lord de Mauley, so he might well take that meeting on my behalf or with me. Nevertheless, I thank my hon. Friend for an important debate.