I beg to move,
That this House has considered sentencing for cruelty to domestic pets.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, although on this occasion I cannot say it is a pleasure to be here, because some of the incidents that have taken place in my constituency have caused a great deal of trauma, not only to domestic pets but to their owners.
Let me give a little insight into what has been taking place in some villages in my constituency. There has been a spate of domestic cat deaths, many of which have been linked to the consumption of antifreeze products. That has been confirmed by local veterinary surgeons after people have presented pet cats suffering terrible symptoms. The tragedy is that once cats in particular have ingested antifreeze products, there is very little that a veterinary surgeon can do to stop the inevitable process of very painful death. Ethylene glycol, which is the toxic ingredient in antifreeze, attacks a cat’s kidneys, causing excruciating pain. Sadly, the cat often has to be put down before it dies very slowly and painfully.
One village in my constituency lost 22 cats over one summer. It is important to emphasise that it was in the summer—not traditionally a time when people use antifreeze products. There is a lot of debate about whether people should put antifreeze into garden water features to prevent them from freezing over the winter, because pets can accidentally drink from them, but these incidents happened in the middle of the summer. Many people in the village concluded that someone local was maliciously targeting their pets. I cannot overemphasise the trauma that families go through when they lose a loved pet, which is why I am here to emphasise how the judicial system deals with people who are convicted of this horrendous crime.
I secured a debate some time ago that was responded to by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We looked at a number of options to try to prevent these poisonings, including introducing bittering agents to antifreeze products to try to prevent animals from ingesting them. Since then, I have been working with Nottinghamshire police, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Cats Protection to research the topic—I should credit the work of my colleague, David Sforza—and to see how we can help. I have come to the conclusion that introducing bittering agents into antifreeze products will probably not help a great deal, because by the time a cat has tasted the bitterness, it has, unfortunately, probably already consumed enough to kill it. Products are available on the market that do not contain the toxin, but they are very expensive compared with the ethylene glycol products. That is something to look into, but I called this debate to discuss sentencing.
Section 7 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 covers attempts to kill an animal by poisoning, and the sentence is currently set at a maximum of 51 weeks in custody, a fine of up to £20,000, or both. The guidelines recommend a 12 to 26-week sentence and a fine of up to £5,000. It is interesting to look at what other countries do. In Australia, the maximum sentence for a crime of this nature is five years. A little closer to home, in Germany and the Netherlands it is three years, and in Spain it is 18 months. I repeat: the UK guideline is a maximum of six months. That is not a strong enough punishment for this horrendous crime.
It is interesting to see what has happened in the courts. A custodial sentence has never been handed down for the deliberate and malicious poisoning of a domestic cat. I have a number of examples. A gentleman called Donald Waterworth poisoned five of his neighbours’ cats. The punishment for that crime was a £125 fine. To put that into context, that is probably not even the commercial value of one of the cats, never mind the emotional trauma experienced by the poor families and the animals themselves. Alan Gillibrand had a problem with his next-door neighbour’s cat, so he decided to leave poisoned chicken all over the neighbourhood to try to kill it. That resulted in many cats in the neighbourhood being killed. He received a 12-week suspended sentence for that crime. Charles Coulter poisoned his neighbour’s cat and showed no remorse, protesting that he did it to protect his pigeons. He was fined £140. RSPCA research shows that the general public find such sentences insulting and think it is time we took stronger action against the people who commit these horrendous crimes.
Part of the reason for such lenient sentences is that magistrates tend to see animal cruelty cases as fairly trivial and unimportant, but we are a nation of animal lovers, and I do not think the way magistrates are sentencing is in tune with the views of the general public. We have to find a way to train our magistrates and make them more accountable, and to give them a flavour of the strength of feeling on this topic. We need to issue improved sentencing guidelines to magistrates. I hope the Minister will comment on that when he responds.
It is worth mentioning that the majority of cases in which custodial sentences are handed down seem to involve fighting animals—when people have engaged in the abhorrent practice of dogfighting or cockfighting—but not malicious poisoning of animals. What is to be done? I would like to see a number of outcomes from this debate. Sentencing should be much tougher. We need to create a real deterrent, and in my opinion that has to be a custodial sentence handed down to people who are convicted of this horrendous crime. A £150 fine is nowhere appropriate for such an horrendous crime.
I would like the Government, through the Ministry of Justice and other Departments, to talk to companies that produce antifreeze products, because we need to find a more affordable non-toxic variety. One challenge is that the ethylene glycol products are very cheap, whereas the alternatives tend to be very expensive because currently very few people use them. Consumer power is the answer, and the Government should do what they can to highlight that so that consumers can look for and purchase pet-safe antifreeze products, which would bring their costs more into line with the ethylene glycol products.
As I have mentioned, we have to improve awareness and responsibility in the training of magistrates, so that they consider those crimes in light of true abhorrence people feel about them. We want magistrates to hand out sentences that match how dreadful those crimes are.
We also need to encourage people to contact the RSPCA, the body that often brings private prosecutions against the people who commit these horrendous crimes. We should encourage people not to be afraid to ring the RSPCA and to report incidents to it. The RSPCA is good at investigating gently, and if there has been no crime and no abuse, it is good at talking to people and explaining that it has had a report. I am sure that it could handle such situations well, so we should encourage people to work with charities such as the RSPCA and Cats Protection.
I am taking action locally, raising money through a community fund so that we can issue residents in some of my villages with GPS tracking devices for their cats. That might seem to be an extreme measure, but it is a way of saying to the people committing these crimes, “We are coming after you. We are not going to accept your committing these offences against our pets. The net is closing in.” We are working with Nottinghamshire police and the RSPCA to ensure that we catch the people, or the individual, committing the crimes. I openly admit that if someone’s cat is poisoned, it will probably still die, sadly, but we will be able to track where it has been in the previous 24 hours and to build a map of where the offences have taken place—a grid to assist the police in clamping down.
I do not intend to detain the House for the full 90 minutes allotted to the debate, but I hope that I have got across a flavour of how abhorrent these crimes are and the fact that they are not taken seriously enough by magistrates when people are prosecuted. We have a long way to go in the judicial system before we get the right punishment for inflicting a dreadful, painful death on a domestic pet.
Thank you, Sir Roger, for your understanding and consideration. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer) for securing this important debate.
We are undoubtedly behind other countries when it comes to sentencing for these abhorrent crimes, which hit the sensitivities of many in the wider community and the animal-loving population—and we are a nation of animal lovers. Australia has a maximum sentence of five years for such crimes, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria three years and countries such as Denmark two years. In the UK, the maximum sentence is six months.
There has been action in the past. In 2012 fines were uprated, but with no actual effect on sentencing, and the offences are still dealt with in magistrates courts, which have limits because their powers have never been uprated. This is an inconsistency left behind by previous Governments and I hope that our Government will do something.
Prosecution rates for these crimes are low. In 2014, for example, the RSPCA investigated 159,831 cases, but only 2,419 were prosecuted. The burden of proof seems to be higher to an extent, because obviously the animals subject to these crimes and horrendous activities cannot speak for themselves, so there is always the issue of evidence. However, the number still seems to be low, given that prosecutions are brought in only about 1.5% of cases investigated by the RSPCA.
One of the challenges with the burden of proof is that a post-mortem by an independent veterinary surgeon is necessary to mount a prosecution. When a family has lost a loved pet, however, the last thing that they want to do, frankly, is allow their pet to sit in a deep freeze for weeks until it has had a post-mortem operation, only then to be used as a piece of criminal evidence, rather than being treated as a loved pet.
I thank my hon. Friend for that important and interesting intervention. He makes a good point about the procedure, and the sensitivity around it. I maintain that a prosecution rate of 1.5% in this country is still low.
Not only are we prosecuting far fewer individuals for these crimes, but when people are brought to trial and found guilty, the sentences that they are receiving are far too light by any international comparison. The RSPCA has made the good point to me that existing laws are not being used properly. The organisation’s government relations manager suggested, for example, that disqualification or deprivation orders could be
“a powerful tool in protecting animal welfare”.
The problem is threefold: light prosecution rates; poor sentencing; and existing sanctions not being used sufficiently.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. The crime is abhorrent from a social perspective and it gnaws to the marrow of many Britons.
As a nation of animal lovers, we want to see proper sentencing. I have heard that many times from constituents when such matters are brought before them. Solihull in particular has a strong history of good and careful treatment of animals. When such cases are talked about, people’s first reaction is often, “They got how long?”, “They got fined how much?” or, “Are you sure that these people can keep an animal again?” All too often, the answers are inadequate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood has made an important point today and I speak very much in support of the motion. I hope that the debate sends out a strong message that enough is enough. We want prosecutions and tougher sentencing for these offences to reflect the general abhorrence in which our society holds individuals who commit such crimes against defenceless creatures.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Sir Roger.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer) on securing this important debate. I am aware of the work that he is doing in his constituency to tackle some awful instances of cruelty to animals. I have read about many other examples of cruelty to animals in the newspapers, and they make for the most unpleasant reading—cases of starvation, overcrowding or failure to obtain required veterinary treatment. Even more unpleasant, as the hon. Gentleman said, are cases of deliberate harm to animals and organised fighting.
It is a concern to read that the RSPCA has reported increases throughout England and Wales in the number of complaints of cruelty to pets, including complaints of direct cruelty, such as beatings, improper killings, mutilations and poisonings. Equally, though, the RSPCA reports that more people are accepting advice and assistance from that organisation; there were more than 80,000 examples of that during 2013-14. What we all agree on is that animal cruelty and abuse is abhorrent and cannot be tolerated in a modern civilised country such as the United Kingdom.
The laws and penalties are similar, but not identical, in Scotland, where the legislation was consolidated and brought up to date in the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006. There, the maximum penalty on conviction for causing unnecessary suffering or for animal fighting offences is 12 months’ imprisonment and/or a fine of up to £20,000. Other offences, such as poisonings or mutilations, attract a sentence of up to six months’ imprisonment or a £5,000 fine. During the passage of the Bill that became that Act, there was extensive debate on sentencing powers. Indeed, it was in light of evidence provided to the relevant Scottish Parliament Committee and debate there that a 12-month sentence was attached, in place of the six-month sentence, to the offence of causing unnecessary suffering, as well as to offences relating to animal fighting.
The suggestion of increased sentencing powers is far from unreasonable. As hon. Members have pointed out, certain jurisdictions apply heavier maximum sentences, but in other jurisdictions there are more limited sentencing powers. However, broadly speaking, I believe that the powers that the courts have now are just about proportionate to provide adequate sentences for those found guilty of animal welfare offences. I agree with the hon. Member for Sherwood that there is an issue about how the current sentencing powers are used. I agree that the sentencing powers should be reviewed from time to time, but more importantly and more immediately, we have to look again at judicial guidance and how the existing sentences are used.
What is also striking about the reports of animal cruelty in the newspapers is that although there are clear deliberate acts, which must be the priority for clamping down on, there are also many instances that relate to lack of awareness, transient personal problems, ignorance or even mental health issues. That is not in any way to negate the suffering caused to the animals, but we need to keep the issue in mind when considering a proportionate response.
In each year from 2009 to 2011, 1,100 to 1,300 people were found guilty in England and Wales of animal cruelty offences—and 100 or fewer each year were sentenced to custody. Similarly, in Scotland during 2013-14, there were 124 prosecutions and 99 convictions and just two custodial sentences were handed down. The Scottish courts, too, have yet to use the maximum penalty available to them.
Again, I believe that the issue is more about use of the current powers than about increasing the powers available to the courts. People are not necessarily committing these offences because they think that the maximum punishment is not particularly severe.
I was struck when the hon. Gentleman said that people are not committing these crimes because of the sentencing—in effect, it is not a deterrent at present. Surely the point of increasing the sentence is that it would stand as an exemplar. If people open their newspapers and see that someone has been sentenced to five years for one of these offences, perhaps that would bring up short certain individuals who may be treating their animals cruelly.
I agree that people are influenced by what they see in the newspapers. However, I think that it would be much more influential if, as the hon. Member for Sherwood said, people became aware that the RSPCA and others were coming after them and that they were likely to be caught. That would be more influential than seeing the difference between a one-year maximum sentence and a two-year maximum sentence.
Do I really think that the person behind all the cat poisoning in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency would think differently if the maximum sentence was two years, three years or five years? I suspect that a twisted individual such as that is more likely to rethink what they are doing if they think that they are going to be caught, rather than by sitting down and thinking over the maximum sentence that they could receive if they were caught.
We need to consider other options. The hon. Gentleman mentioned looking at judicial guidelines on sentencing. Education is key. For example, the Scottish Government have published various codes of practice for the welfare of animals, including cats and dogs. The Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals undertakes a free prevention-through-education outreach programme. In 2014, education officers, animal rescue officers and inspectors delivered that programme to about 317,000 primary school children. Scotland’s Rural College has also been undertaking research into how a duty of care can be best promoted to our young people.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to ensure that people are aware of how to report suspected incidents of animal cruelty. We also need to ask ourselves whether we are doing enough to ensure that people know where they can find help if they are no longer capable of looking after their animals. I agree that we perhaps need to look at sentencing guidelines. This debate is well motivated and we may well want to revisit this issue in the future, but I am still not quite convinced that the case for the particular solution that has been offered—increasing the maximum penalty—has been made out. There are other ways of tackling this problem and we should concentrate on those first.
It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer) on securing the debate. He has been campaigning assiduously on this issue, and I am sure that his constituents are very grateful to him. I am sure that his cat, which I believe is called Parsnip, is also grateful for the effort he is making.
This is an important matter. Our inboxes this week show, I am sure, how interested the public are in animal welfare. I am sure that, like me, other hon. Members have had several hundred emails about the proposed revisions to the Hunting Act 2004. That confirms for me that we are a nation of animal lovers and that the British public care deeply about animal welfare.
The hon. Member for Sherwood raised the tragic case of a spate of cat poisonings in his constituency. In doing a little research, I found that that is certainly not restricted to his constituency—it is a regular occurrence. Just this year, more than 140 cats have been poisoned across the country. One of the other victims—the hon. Gentleman may know this but I did not until I looked into it—is my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones), whose own cat, Jaffa, was poisoned and killed in the same way. I should make it clear, having spoken to my hon. Friend, that it is actually his partner’s cat, but I am sure that it is a loss to the whole family. The fact that several hon. Members have been victims, or at least have concerns about this issue, shows just how common it is becoming.
I worry about the level of animal cruelty. Looking at the Library’s debate pack, which cites some horrific cases, most of them very recent, makes one wonder about the mentality of people who can engage in such actions. Earlier this week, there was a story in the Evening Standard relating to my own constituency. It was about a cat that was thrown out of a car on to the Hammersmith flyover—extraordinary, one may think. There was a happy ending, as it was observed by staff of Notting Hill Housing, who risked their own safety to go out and rescue the cat, now called Bridget and now recovering in hospital, with only a grazed chin, I am told. But it was an extraordinary event, and these are not isolated events—they are very common. I still say that we are a nation of animal lovers, as the response of the public in that case shows, but many cats, dogs and other domestic animals—pets—are not as fortunate as Bridget and are often the victim of horrible treatment, whether through cruelty or negligence, at the hands of owners who end up abusing them.
In anticipation of the debate, I asked the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, a number of parliamentary questions. He confirmed that 752 people were found guilty in 2014 of causing, permitting or failing to prevent unnecessary suffering to animals, but only 76 of those—about 10%—received immediate custody, and I think only about half that number received a custodial sentence of more than three months.
It is clear that the public are increasingly concerned that some sentences do not appear to match the abuse suffered by the animal victims, especially in the case of extreme cruelty. We hear reports from reputable organisations such as the RSPCA, Cats Protection and the International Fund for Animal Welfare about serious neglect, cruelty and violence against animals every day. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 is an exemplary piece of Labour legislation, and I believe we can all sign up to it because it advances the cause of animal welfare. We have some of the best animal welfare legislation of anywhere in the world, but that is not to say that sentencing could not be addressed and improved.
The RSPCA states that, during the past five years, the maximum fine imposed on anyone who has been prosecuted under the 2006 Act was a fine of £15,000, which was £2,500 for each of six offences. In the RSPCA’s words, the courts
“increasingly take the position that unless someone can repay a fine and costs incurred within a reasonable period there is no point in imposing large fines. This suggests that the focus should be on prison sentences.”
We have to be slightly careful about saying that, because people might not be able to pay fines, prison is therefore the alternative. Let me suggest two or three alternative avenues that the Minister might like to look at. The hon. Member for Sherwood mentioned that the maximum sentence for some offences is set at 51 weeks. The Government had a change of heart during the progress of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012—I served in Committee—in relation to magistrates’ sentencing powers. The previous Labour Government introduced in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 the principle that a magistrate should have the power to impose a sentence of up to 12 months for a single offence. We did not activate that section, and the coalition Government proposed to repeal it but, wisely, had a change of heart. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that that section is still not in force. Giving magistrates the power to sentence people for longer on a single offence may be a route to allowing greater sentencing powers on some of the more serious animal welfare offences without making them either-way offences.
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, particularly when he is agreeing with me wholeheartedly, but I think the point is that whatever the maximum sentence is, it has never been implemented for a case of this nature. In one such case, someone had premeditatedly gone out, purchased bait—for want of a better word—and poison and distributed them far and wide. The fact that they received only a very small fine emphasises that some part of the system is not working.
There are a number of elements to that, as the hon. Gentleman implies, one of which is the sentencing guidelines. Interestingly, there are sentencing guidelines for some animal cruelty offences and not for others. The advice from the Attorney-General, in answer to a parliamentary question, was that one should read across from those sentencing guidelines to offences for which there are no guidelines. For example, for section 7 offences, which cover poisoning, there are no specific sentencing guidelines, but one should look at guidelines in relation to, say, section 4 offences to see, first, whether existing guidelines are being followed—I am not sure that they are in every case—and, secondly, whether they should be strengthened in any way. That is a matter for the Sentencing Council. The Minister will no doubt want to deal with the use of existing sentencing powers and the question of whether there is any will in the Government to increase sentencing.
There is always danger inherent in the escalation of sentencing powers, not only because of the financial cost of prison places and so forth, but because if we begin to ratchet up sentences for one offence, there will be an immediate demand to do so for others. The Minister might want to look at repeat offending, however. By analogy, we proposed in the previous Parliament that driving while disqualified, which is a summary-only offence, should become an either-way offence with a maximum sentence of two years. Many animal welfare charities advocate a similar proposal for animal cruelty offences, which they think should carry a two-year maximum sentence.
The hon. Member for Sherwood is right that maximum sentences are rarely used. By definition, they are used only in the most serious cases. There is always a discount, usually of up to a third, for a guilty plea, which of course includes remission. Typically, even for a very serious offence with a guilty plea, the offender will receive a four-month sentence and will be out within two months. The only way in which the situation can be remedied, if Parliament’s will is for there to be longer sentences, is to increase the maximum. I am wary of sentence inflation, but in the case of repeat offending, there could be a reason for considering that proposal.
I used the analogy of driving while disqualified because to treat a first offence as a summary-only matter may well be perfectly reasonable. A small minority of people, however, repeatedly abuse the law by driving while disqualified again as soon as they get out of prison, knowing that the maximum that they are likely to get on a guilty plea is another two months inside. That might also apply to the sort of callous and sociopathic people who repeatedly commit serious offences against animals. The Minister might want to consider increasing magistrates’ sentencing powers, and to consider the selective use of either-way offences or the sentencing guidelines. I would be interested to see what he has to say on those matters.
In a similar debate in 2013, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minister said:
“The Government deplore acts of animal cruelty and believe that offenders deserve the full force of the courts.”
He expressed his belief that the current legislation was “fit for purpose” and pointed out that judges had
“a great deal of discretion”—[Official Report, 15 October 2013; Vol. 568, c. 229-230WH.]
when it came to determining the appropriate sentence for individual cases. That might be what the hon. Member for Sherwood is complaining about—judges may use that discretion in the wrong way.
The Minister in that debate also noted that nobody had been given the maximum sentence available under the law, and that judges would be expected to explain why anyone convicted of animal cruelty offences was not subsequently disqualified from owning or keeping animals. That is an important point. The sentencing guidelines state, in bold type:
“Consider disqualification from ownership of animal”.
I believe that that power is too rarely invoked. I had some personal experience of the matter, because my godson’s young brother’s kitten was savaged and killed in his presence by a dog. The court returned the dog to the owner with a £280 fine, despite the fact that it was a serial offender—or rather, the owner was a serial offender at letting it get out and be abusive in such a way. The dog was being used, effectively, as a weapon, but in such a case or in the case of someone who repeatedly commits animal cruelty, I cannot for the life of me see why any court in its right mind would allow them to continue to keep an animal. I ask the Minister to address whether he feels that the judiciary have heeded his colleague’s words on section 4 and section 7. If not, does he intend to take any actions to encourage the toughening up of the law, or at least of the guidelines? Will he consider asking the Sentencing Council to look at it again?
I would also like the Minister to clarify his position on section 8 offences, which relate to animal fighting. As things stand, the maximum sentence is six months, but it is rarely handed out. Animal fighting offences are some of the most serious offences and there can be very little mitigation for matters such as organised dog fighting. Does the Minister feel that the law in that respect is sufficient, or will he consider reviewing the situation?
There are powers in the 2006 Act to impose deprivation and disqualification orders. Will the Minister commit to ensuring that guidance in that area is updated and republished to ensure that it is used better and more consistently? How can it be right for repeat offenders of animal cruelty, poisoning or fighting to get away without being disqualified from looking after animals and possibly mistreating them again?
I advise the Minister to read the Labour manifesto. His colleagues seem to be dipping into it from time to time, whether it is the Chancellor on minimum incomes or, this morning, the Lord Chancellor on better use of the court estate and amalgamating places where hearings should be held. On animal welfare, we said:
“We will build on our strong record on animal welfare—starting with an end to the Government’s ineffective and cruel badger cull. We will improve the protection of dogs and cats, ban wild animals in circuses, defend the hunting ban and deal with wildlife crime associated with shooting.”
We made six pledges, one of which was to improve the protection of dogs and cats. Our offer on animal welfare was very strong, and I hope the Government are prepared to work with us on achieving some of those aims.
Today we are discussing the protection of domestic pets, and too often we see inadequate dog breeding practices causing suffering to both the animal and its owner. More puppies are being bred than there are good homes available, and large-scale puppy farms and backstreet breeders operate in terrible conditions in which dogs are frequently sick or unsocialised.
The hon. Gentleman has made some fine and balanced points in his interesting speech. On puppy farming, is not one of the points about sentencing and the treatment of offenders that there are major profits to be made for professional breeders and those involved in animal-related issues? He talked about a case that resulted in a £15,000 fine, which is equivalent to five or six puppies of a premium breed. With such potential profits to be made, is it not true that the available sentences and criminal sanctions are inadequate?
Indeed, and the maximum £15,000 fine was for six separate offences. Most fines for individual offences are way below that level. I am not sure whether the maximum fine, which was increased to £20,000 by LASPO, is necessarily inadequate. It might just be that the courts are not imposing fines. Fines have to be proportionate, because it is pointless fining people who will never have the means to pay. We perhaps need to find an alternative such as community sentences. There can be no reason for not fining commercial enterprises, or people who are making profits from dog breeding, at or near the maximum.
The unlawful trafficking of puppies with little or no regard for their health means that many fall sick or die shortly after purchase, leaving their owners not only heartbroken but often lumbered with large vets’ bills. Such trafficking also results in unsocialised dogs that present a threat to humans and other animals. Dogs are effectively treated as mere commodities by the people who are selling them. There is ineffective regulation, a lack of information for pet owners and a failure to address irresponsible and cruel breeding practices. The coalition Government struggled with those issues, and I hope the new Government will make headway. If they do, they can count on our support.
We pledged to review the inadequate regulation of the sale and breeding of cats and dogs. Poor breeding and rearing practices contribute greatly to the number of abandoned animals in rescue centres, and tougher sentencing might play a part in stopping animals being abandoned. That will have a beneficial effect down the line, including for animal rescue centres, which do such a fantastic job. We urge the Government to build on the Animal Welfare Act and the strategy we proposed.
In Northern Ireland, just last year, a sentence was handed out to a father and his sons for extreme cruelty to animals. The shock among the community was such that elected representatives such as me, and many others, sought for the case and the sentence to be reviewed. We sought a custodial sentence that reflected the severity of the cruelty. Unfortunately, the reply stated that the judge was unable to give the type of custodial sentence that should have been given because the law did not allow that to happen. What the hon. Gentleman is saying, and what I suspect every other hon. Member has said, is that that needs to be reflected in the law of the land to enable judges, whenever the situation arises, to hand down a custodial sentence that reflects the severity of the cruelty. Society finds the current sentences distasteful when it sees such cruelty. We must ensure that people who commit such crimes receive the correct sentence.
As always, the hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I hope the Minister will address all those issues in full, including the use of current sentencing powers—not only custodial and financial penalties but preventing offenders from keeping animals and monitoring repeat offenders.
Returning to my point, will the Minister commit to reviewing the existing regulations on the sale and breeding of cats and dogs? This has been an interesting week for animal welfare campaigners, who know that they can always rely on the Labour party. Perhaps they can now also rely on the Scottish National party, but no other mainstream political party can equal our track record on delivering for animals, be they domestic pets or wild animals. Whether it is legislating on hunting with dogs, fighting to protect wild animals that are being exploited in circuses or introducing the Animal Welfare Act, we have a strong legacy.
When the Animal Welfare Act was published, my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), the then Minister with responsibility for animal welfare, said:
“Once this legislation is enacted, our law will be worthy of our reputation as a nation of animal lovers.”
Almost 10 years later, we need to ensure that the Act is working properly in relation to sentencing guidelines, and I offer the Minister our full support in ensuring that that is still the case.
I end by quoting Gandhi:
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
I am glad Bridget is recovering from her traumatic experience and I am glad there are some good stories, but in preparation for this debate I read some harrowing stories of animal cruelty. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s proposals for how we can discourage and punish such cruelty where it continues.
It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer) on securing this important debate. He is right that the needless suffering of animals is always a concern, whether that suffering is deliberately inflicted, accidental or the result of negligence, and whether the animals are domestic or wild. It often happens because people are unaware of the effect of their behaviour, and sometimes simple steps can be taken to prevent animals from coming to harm—indeed, he set out a number of steps in his excellent speech.
The suffering of pets can cause considerable distress to their owner as well as to the animals themselves, as this debate has made clear. At a recent constituency surgery, a widow came to see me who strongly believes that her dog was stolen. In the two or three times that she has been to see me since, it has been vividly impressed on me that, to her, that is akin to a family bereavement. She lives on her own, and her dog was her only companion. We need to recognise how greatly the loss of a much loved domestic pet affects our constituents. Victim personal statements mean that courts, at the discretion of the judge, are able to consider the degree of harm caused by an offence, and they are open to statements from pet owners in such horrific cases.
I welcome this debate, which I hope will raise awareness of our responsibilities and of the legal measures that are available to us. The Ministry of Justice is responsible for ensuring that the courts have the powers they need to deal appropriately and proportionately with all the cases that come before them. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is responsible for animal welfare issues more widely, including ensuring responsible pet ownership and the wider protection of our pets and wildlife. The Animal Welfare Act is the main legislation that protects the welfare of animals, and the Government reviewed the operation of that Act in 2010. A report was prepared by DEFRA and shared with the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The report concluded that the Act had
“a positive impact on animal welfare. It has successfully brought together a number of different pieces of legislation into a comprehensive whole providing a duty of care for those responsible for animals.”
The report did not suggest that the available penalties are inadequate.
Legislation sets maximum penalties that the courts may apply. It is for the courts—usually magistrates courts in animal welfare cases—to take a view on what sentences should be given in individual cases, having heard all the evidence and taken account of the circumstances of the case. In coming to a view, the courts are helped by the sentencing guidelines produced by the independent Sentencing Council. The council, set up under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, consults widely before issuing guidelines, which are available on its website. Sentencing guidelines set out a recommended range of sentences and aggravating and mitigating factors that may make the sentence more or less severe in particular cases. The courts have a duty to follow the guidelines unless, exceptionally, it would not be in the interests of justice to do so.
Guidelines do not exist for every offence, but there are specific guidelines covering offences in the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. The Sentencing Council recently consulted on updating guidelines in response to changes to the 1991 Act contained in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. Sentencing guidelines for magistrates include guidelines for offences of animal cruelty under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. They help magistrates impose proportionate and consistent penalties. The guidelines were last updated in 2008 and reflect the current penalties available.
The Government’s responsibility is to ensure that courts have the powers to impose appropriate sentences. To that end, the Animal Welfare Act 2006 makes it an offence to cause any unnecessary suffering to an animal, with a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment, an unlimited fine, or both.
After this debate, will the Minister reflect whether the guidelines for magistrates are robust enough to encourage them to give out the correct sentence? We have heard of a number of crimes of premeditated poisoning for which no one has been given a custodial sentence on being convicted. Might he reflect on those guidelines and write to me with those reflections?
I am more than happy to do so. I meet the Sentencing Council reasonably regularly, and I will ensure that a copy of this debate is sent to the council so that it is well aware of the widespread interest in these matters in Parliament.
The Animal Welfare Act 2006 also makes it an offence to fail to provide for an animal’s welfare needs, attracting a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment, a fine, or both. The courts also have powers to disqualify someone from owning an animal in future. Where they have that power but do not impose such a disqualification, courts must state why.
The Government have introduced new measures to tackle antisocial behaviour by allowing police and local authorities to issue warning notices to low-level offenders who allow their dogs to worry others. Dog owners, for example, could be asked to go on training courses with their pet. Those new measures form part of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014.
Figures taken from the court database do not show that the courts are finding that their powers are inadequate. There have been around 2,000 convictions annually under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 in recent years. In 2014, some 959 cases were proceeded against; 800 people were found guilty, 78 of whom received custodial sentences. The average sentence was about three months.
My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) suggested that a higher penalty might have a deterrent effect. Research shows little evidence that this is the case; rather, it is the likelihood of being caught that has the deterrent effect. On that note, I particularly commend what my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood is doing in his constituency with GPS tracking, which might provide evidence and act as a significant deterrent in his area.
We should concentrate on ensuring that animal cruelty is not overlooked or tolerated and that offenders are brought to book. The RSPCA and others provide us with valuable help to ensure that that message gets through loudly and clearly. I agree with the Scottish National party spokesman, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), on the important role of education in that respect.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood told us at the beginning of this debate that there have been some horrific incidents in his constituency involving antifreeze. I cannot comment on individual cases, but it is illegal under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to poison wild animals, and under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 to poison domestic ones. Whether the poison is intended for domestic or wild animals, its use is an offence in either case. There are offences and penalties to tackle such behaviour, and where it occurs it should be reported to the police or the RSPCA. Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this important debate before the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered sentencing for cruelty to domestic pets.