I beg to move,
That this House has considered sentencing for animal cruelty.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank all colleagues who have come to discuss this important issue, and I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Justice for his time. I hope that he and his officials will listen carefully to this debate and realise that there is an animal abuse crisis in this country, and that it is in their power to do something about it. I hope that on the back of this debate, they will work with me before my private Member’s Bill to increase sentencing for animal cruelty is debated on 24 February next year.
The origins of my interest in the issue of animal cruelty go back to March this year, when a horrific case of abuse emerged in my constituency. Andrew Frankish, aged 22, and his brother Daniel Frankish, aged 19, from Redcar were convicted of causing unnecessary suffering to a protected animal. On several mobile phone clips filmed by the younger man, Andrew is shown picking up a bulldog at the top of some wooden stairs before repeatedly throwing her down them. On one occasion, he lifts her high over his head. Inspectors from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said that the footage was the most distressing that they had ever seen. The video is widely available on the internet.
I hope, Mr Hollobone, that you will allow me to quote at some length the RSPCA inspector who dealt with the case, because it is important to get the full picture. RSPCA inspector Gemma Lynch said that Baby the bulldog, who was put down three months later after losing the use of her back legs, was
“totally submissive throughout, not even making a noise when she lands on the stairs, bouncing to the foot of them where there is a baby gate which she crashes into before hitting the ground. Frankish is saying things like ‘one, two, three’ before hurling her down them. He is clearly enjoying himself. He’s laughing and smiling. The whole horrible ordeal seems to be for his and the younger man’s entertainment, for fun. One clip shows him stamping on her neck repeatedly at the bottom of the stairs, then picking her up and throwing her to the ground with force over and over again. He’s laughing hysterically.
Another clip shows him standing on Baby’s chest with his full body weight at the top of the stairs, before jumping up and down on her. This is the only time you hear her make a noise, and she is crying throughout. The younger man says, ‘See if we can make it scream any more. We should throw it down the stairs by its ears’, before Frankish picks her up against the wall and head-butts her twice, then throws her down the stairs again. Everyone who has seen the video says it’s the most distressing thing they’ve ever seen. These are people who have seen a lot of horrible things.”
The two men pleaded guilty to causing unnecessary suffering to Baby the bulldog by subjecting her to unnecessary physical violence, an offence under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. What sentence did those two brothers receive for such unspeakable and horrific acts? A suspended sentence, six months’ tagged curfew between the hours of 8 pm and 6 am and £300 in costs. No one can feel that the justice system did its job that day.
What makes the situation even more concerning is that the case only came to light, two years after the abuse took place, because the mobile phone footage was on a memory card found on a supermarket floor by a member of the public. It makes me wonder how much abuse is taking place behind closed doors across the country, against defenceless animals who cannot speak up and who depend on their owners for food, comfort and a life of love and care, free from abuse or neglect.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this crucial debate. Everyone is sickened to hear what she just described. All too often, such individuals are abusing not just animals but vulnerable adults and children; there is a huge amount of evidence showing that link. While considering sentencing, should we not also be considering putting these—words fail me to describe the disgust I feel for them—individuals on a register for potential abuse of humans as well?
My hon. Friend is right. In my discussions with the RSPCA and others, one issue that has come to light is that people can be banned for life from keeping an animal, but we have no way to enforce it at the moment. A register is potentially an important idea, and one that I hope the Government will consider as part of the discussion and debate on my Bill.
On researching how the two brothers could have received such an impossibly lenient sentence for a vicious, premeditated assault, I was astonished to find that the maximum sentence for any form of animal abuse is just six months’ custody. Incredibly, it has not changed since the Protection of Animals Act 1911. In 1911, one could see animals at circuses and monkeys on the shoulders of organ grinders on street corners; the Act was introduced essentially to make it an offence to override or overload animals pulling loads on the street.
Under the last Labour Government, the issue was meant to be dealt with by the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which made provision to increase sentencing for a person found guilty of such offences to be liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 51 weeks, or a fine not exceeding £20,000. Incredibly, however, the provision to increase prison sentences was never enacted, so people who inflict cruelty on animals or make them fight for money can currently receive a maximum of only six months’ imprisonment should the magistrate deem a custodial sentence suitable. The public rightly find that hard to understand or accept as appropriate.
Since the incident of the Frankish brothers came to my attention, I decided to try to amend the law to ensure that sentences fit the crime. Just days after I applied for this debate, another two incidents in my constituency brought the issue back to the news agenda. A small dog was found buried alive in woods near Redcar on 19 October, with a nail hammered into its head. I am unable to discuss the case in more detail due to an ongoing criminal investigation, but on the same day, two sheep were found battered with a blunt instrument.
The people of my constituency have been horrified by all these cases, and it is important to pay tribute to their response. After hearing of the Frankish brothers incident and that of Scamp, the dog who was found with a nail in his head, they held vigils for the animals, with hundreds of people coming to lay flowers and candles and send two messages loudly and defiantly. First, the perpetrators do not represent our community. People in Redcar are decent and kind. I know many passionate animal lovers, and I meet some wonderful dog owners as I walk my own dog on Redcar beach or the Eston hills. Secondly, they are angry. They feel that the criminal justice system is letting them down. The police were called to the defence of one of the Frankish brothers after they were threatened. I do not condone such violence, but I fear greatly that that is what happens when the criminal justice system fails and people do not believe that a sentence fits a crime.
On researching my Bill, I was shocked by the number of horrific cases I came across. I read of a dismembered cat left on a war memorial, strangled cats, a deer with a tree branch forced up its backside and a McDonald’s bag over its head, a flock of 20 ducks strangled with cable around their necks and boiling liquid poured on a puppy. Just last week, a Shetland pony was found dead near Sunderland, its body slashed and its bottom lip, mane and genitals cut off. The list of horrific attacks goes on and on.
The RSPCA receives and investigates thousands of complaints about cruelty to animals each year. For example, it received 143,004 complaints in 2015, and 1,781 people were successfully prosecuted. Of the convictions in 2015, 50% were for cruelty offences under section 4 of the 2006 Act and 1.8% were for fighting offences under section 8. The latter acts of cruelty are some of the most extreme. For all cases, current punishments do not appear to fit the crime. During the last five years, the maximum fine imposed on anyone prosecuted by the RSPCA under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 was just £15,000, representing £2,500 for each of six offences. The courts often take the position that unless someone can repay a fine and costs incurred within a reasonable period, there is no point imposing large fines. That suggests to me that the focus should be on prison sentences.
I urge those who think that the crime of abusing defenceless animals is worth less serious attention than abusing people to look at the evidence, predominantly from the United States but also more recently from Europe, showing connections between the two. A 2001 to 2004 study by the Chicago police department
“revealed a startling propensity for offenders charged with crimes against animals to commit other violent offences toward human victims.”
Of those arrested for animal crimes, 65% had been arrested for battery against another person. Of the 36 convicted multiple murderers questioned in one study, 46% admitted committing acts of animal torture as adolescents. Of seven school shootings that took place across the United States between 1997 and 2001, all involved boys who had previously committed acts of animal cruelty.
Because abusers target the powerless, crimes against animals, spouses, children, and the elderly often go hand in hand. Children who abuse animals may be repeating a lesson learned at home. Like their parents, they are reacting to anger or frustration with violence. Their violence is directed at the only individual in the family who is more vulnerable than they are—an animal. Professor Frank Ascione of the University of Denver graduate school of social work says:
“The research is pretty clear that there are connections between animal abuse and domestic violence and child abuse.”
According to a six-year gold-standard study conducted in 11 metropolitan cities in the US, pet abuse is one of four predictors of domestic partner violence. In both domestic violence and child abuse situations, abusers may manipulate and control their human victims through threatened or actual violence against family pets. Researchers have found that between 71% and 83% of women entering domestic violence shelters reported that their partners also abused or killed the family pet. Another study found that in families under supervision for the physical abuse of their children, pet abuse was concurrent in 88% of the families.
In the UK, a new academic study—the first of its kind in Europe—by researchers at Teesside University has also identified a link between animal abuse and domestic violence. The study of young people in eastern Europe found that violence breeds violence. Adolescent males who had experienced domestic violence either showed displaced aggression against animals or progressed to committing violence against family members. The findings point towards a worrying cycle of abuse in society if violence is not addressed or properly challenged.
I return to sentencing, and some comparisons with our devolved colleagues. In its recent review of the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 2011, the Northern Ireland Assembly increased the maximum penalty on summary conviction for the offences of causing unnecessary suffering and animal fighting to 12 months’ imprisonment, a fine not exceeding £20,000, or both. The maximum prison sentence for those found guilty on indictment was increased from two years to five years. It should be noted that Northern Ireland is currently the only part of the UK that provides for more serious animal welfare offences to be tried in a Crown court. Up in Scotland, the Scottish Government have recently committed to reviewing penalties under the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006. If we look around the world, we can see that the maximum penalty for animal cruelty in Australia is five years and in Germany it is three years; six months here in the UK seems comparatively paltry, especially when we call ourselves a nation of animal lovers.
In addition to the examples from our colleagues in the devolved nations, there is a precedent for tougher sentencing in other UK legislation on the treatment of animals. Under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, a person can go to prison for three years if their dog injures a guide dog. In 2015, the Law Commission’s review of wildlife law recommended two years’ imprisonment for cruelty towards wildlife.
It should of course be noted that in 2015, all fines for animal welfare offences that were previously set at level 5 on the standard scale—including those at or above the equivalent level—were increased to unlimited fines. Nevertheless, fines are clearly not working. The fact still stands that under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, the sentence for an offence under section 4 on unnecessary suffering, section 8 on animal fighting, and section 9 on the duty of the person responsible for the animal to ensure welfare, is imprisonment for up to just six months. The lack of sentencing available to the courts severely blunts the Act as the existing jail terms are far too low to deter offenders, especially if we consider the fact that reductions can be given for early guilty pleas and the possibility of suspended rather than custodial sentences.
Such woefully inadequate sentences must be addressed if they are to be punishments that fit the cruelty inflicted on animals. My private Member’s Bill, which will have its Second Reading in February, will seek to increase the custodial sentence for animal cruelty from six months to five years, in line with the recent changes in Northern Ireland. If we are to continue declaring ourselves a nation of animal lovers, it is about time we showed it by sending out the message that we take animal cruelty seriously.
I thank the RSPCA, the Dogs Trust, Battersea Dogs Home and the League Against Cruel Sports for their support for my Bill. I place on record my particular thanks to the staff at the RSPCA, who do a fantastic job dealing with some horrific cases and some situations that require real bravery. I commend them for the cases that they bring to conviction, such as that of the Frankish brothers. It is vital that we have their unique expertise to bring such cases to justice, and they deserve to see the sentencing process support their efforts.
Finally, I want to say a word about Baby the bulldog and the dog named Scamp. We will probably never know the full level of cruelty and torture these silent and defenceless animals endured. We can only begin to imagine the pain they experienced and the fear they felt. We cannot undo the suffering that man has done to them, but we can show each other that that kind of cruelty has no place in our communities, and that such depraved behaviour will face the punishment that it deserves. I am grateful for having been able to introduce this debate. I urge the Minister to put right the injustice by supporting my Bill in February.
Order. This is an hour-long debate that finishes at 5.30 pm. The guideline limits for the Front-Bench contributions are five minutes for the Scottish National party, five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister. There should also be three minutes for Anna Turley to wind up the debate at the end. I therefore need to call the first of the Front-Bench speakers just after five past 5 pm. There are four people standing and 20 minutes left, so I am going to impose a five-minute time limit. That way, every Back Bencher will get to make his or her contribution. They will be led by Neil Parish.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Thank you very much for dividing up the time; I shall try to ensure that I keep my speech below five minutes.
I thank the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) not only for introducing her Bill but for securing this debate. Whatever political party one comes from, what is going on is just abhorrent. The major issue, on which I hope we will hear more from the Minister, is the fact that however horrendous the crime, the maximum sentence that can be awarded is six months’ imprisonment. If the perpetrator pleads guilty, they automatically get two months knocked off that sentence, so they often serve around four months for the most horrendous crimes.
I agree entirely with the hon. Lady that if someone can string up a dog, cat or any other animal and beat it to death or kick it downstairs, or whatever the other horrendous things that have been happening are, it will not be too long before they can do that to a human. The Americans and others are linking things up and creating a register of those who have committed animal welfare crimes, and that would be a good way forward for this country.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and yes, they should. Some individuals will be just completely and utterly cruel and base; perhaps others will be challenged in some way and so not necessarily able to understand all they are doing. It is a combination of all those things. There needs to be a link with social services, but we also need to send a message not only to those who are blatantly cruel but to those taking part in dog fights and keeping dogs for that purpose. There is a criminal element out there. Sometimes, making money from inflicting animal cruelty can be an easy way of making some sort of a horrible living.
We are talking about sentient beings. Animals feel pain. Many of us present will have animals of our own. At home we have both a dog and a cat, and I have had many other animals in my time as a farmer. When someone has an animal, they are its protector. Animals cannot protect themselves, so they are very much in our care. They give us much love, and then what do we do? Individuals treat them so dreadfully and they cannot protect themselves. It is just absolutely horrendous. We need to ensure that we send the right message to everyone out there that if they are going to abuse an animal and beat it to death, they will get a sentence of at least five years, if not longer. That would ensure that we at least send out the message that animal abuse is absolutely wrong and that perpetrators will go to prison, and it would prevent others from going down the same route.
I do not wish to say anything further because there are others who wish to speak, but I ask the Minister to please deal with this problem seriously, as they have done in Northern Ireland. Let us be clear and put up the sentences massively.
I pay tribute to the RSPCA, Battersea dogs home, the Dogs Trust, Blue Cross and many other charities that do some marvellous work in trying to make sure that our animals are protected and looked after properly.
Nine hundred years before Christ, the prophet Solomon wrote the instructive and very apt words:
“A righteous man regards the life of his beast.”
Unfortunately, today we have a situation where we see that regard for a beast has been replaced by brutal and depraved wickedness against animals. Indeed, the startling report that the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) has brought before us by stops us in our tracks, by showing us how wicked some people can be.
In Northern Ireland, since 2012 4,000 cases of animal cruelty have been reported and investigated by the authorities every year. Think of that—since 2012, there have been 16,000 incidences of cruelty against animals in Northern Ireland. However, less than 120 cases are brought before the courts annually. In a week when it is fashionable to criticise the judiciary, and I will criticise the judiciary in this regard, we see that we have a record of lenient sentencing, even in the trailblazing Northern Ireland; I am glad that the hon. Member talked about Northern Ireland in that way.
In fact, between 2012 and 2014, there were 114 convictions for animal cruelty in Northern Ireland, but only 15 of them resulted in custodial sentences. They were for pretty horrible cases. I do not want to go into the details, but in one instance a judge said in his summing up that he had seen
“one of the vilest examples of premeditated abuse”
of animals ever produced in Northern Ireland, when a cat was torn to pieces by fighting dogs. What sentence did that judge decide to hand down in that case in Northern Ireland? Wait for it—it was a sentence of six months, suspended. That was utterly pathetic. In my constituency, a 46-year-old man allowed his dog to starve to death and he received a non-custodial sentence and a stunning fine of £274.
Unfortunately, a message has been sent out by the judiciary that people can get away with perverse wickedness against animals, and that has got to stop. So what have we got to do? I hope that the Minister looks at the example of Northern Ireland and introduces four or five key measures. I agree that a register must be put in place. We have the perverse situation where I could be convicted today of abusing or hurting an animal and so long as it is not widely reported, the very next day I can go to a pet shop or a dog dealer and procure another animal to torture and to be inhumane towards. That is wrong; only a register will start to resolve that particular issue.
Secondly, we need to ensure that the punishment fits the crime. I welcome the fact that in Northern Ireland we have increased the fines and sentences that can be imposed, but those matters have not yet been tested and I wait eagerly for the first test in a court of law.
We have the perverse situation whereby if I am careless with my animal and it fouls on a pavement I can be given an £80 fine, but there are examples of £200 fines for people who have starved their animals to death. That is wrong; it must change, and change dramatically. We need a minimum fines system, whereby any act of animal cruelty will receive a minimum fine of £1,000. That system should be introduced, as well as a register.
We also need the ability to review sentences. The hon. Member for Redcar made it clear that the case she referred to had gone to a magistrates court. If she had wanted that sentence to be reviewed, of course she would have been told by the Director of Public Prosecution and the Attorney General that their hands were tied. We need to have a system whereby such cases can be reviewed. Actually, a call for that system to be introduced in Northern Ireland was made just yesterday. The Agriculture Minister has recommended that that change in the law should be made and I eagerly anticipate its being made; I hope that it is made quickly.
Maximum sentences in England should also be increased, in line with Northern Ireland. It is very unusual for me to say that; it is normally the other way round. It is important that the sentencing issue is addressed.
There are some good examples of work being done, but there are many other openings for people to abuse animals. For example, if someone can go on to Gumtree and buy a pet, that is wrong. That opens the way for cruelty and such gaps in the law must be addressed.
I know that the Minister is eager to do something about this issue; I know that he is willing to do it; and I hope that he will pick up on some of the examples that have been given today. I also hope that we can see a better, fairer place, where we have a righteous regard for our beasts.
I am delighted to speak in this very important debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) for securing it.
I am pleased that the Scottish Government continue to legislate to improve animal welfare, and a consultation on the offences and penalties under the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 will be held in due course. Of course, under devolution animal welfare is the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament and the laws that govern it in Scotland are different from those in England and Wales. Today, however—unusually—we have a consensus on an issue, because we all agree that it is completely unacceptable to cause an animal unnecessary suffering.
The Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is unique among animal welfare charities in the United Kingdom, because it is a reporting agency to the Crown Office, which means that its investigators are authorised to enforce the 2006 Act. In 2015, the SSPCA helpline received 241,403 calls, and its inspectors and animal rescue officers attended a record 80,944 incidents.
We all know that the popularity of programmes such as “Animal SOS”, “The Dog Rescuers”, “Pet Rescue”, “Animal 999” and “Animal Frontline” has raised public awareness of the animal cruelty and neglect that is taking place right in the heart of our own communities. However, we must continue to be mindful of the crime of animal cruelty. It is a crime—a very serious crime—that takes place right in our neighbourhoods.
Where we see neglect, we must continue to ensure that laws protect animals from such treatment and that those laws are fit for purpose. Sadly, there are too many cases, as reported by the SSPCA, of people who simply do not know how to look after their pet properly. It seems that there are large numbers of well intentioned people who welcome pets into their homes but are simply unequal to the task of giving them the care that they need. That tells us that a job of public information and education needs to be undertaken, so that potential pet owners are well acquainted with the full responsibility that having a pet would place on their shoulders.
However, where we find wilful cruelty—and unfortunately we do find it—we must take it extremely seriously. As we have heard today, we know that there is a connection between the wilful mistreatment of animals and violence against and mistreatment of fellow citizens, including domestic violence. That connection, as well as the need to protect animals, should give us pause for thought.
I was ashamed and disturbed to learn that the SSPCA has reported cases of “unimaginable cruelty”, and I honestly do not believe that a life ban from owning a pet is sufficient censure for such behaviour towards a helpless animal. We have plenty of evidence that such cruelty is a precursor to, and has a clear link with, violence against other people. Fines and community service orders do not provide enough of a punishment or a sufficient deterrent against such behaviour. Cases such as deliberately starving an animal to death, or knowingly locking an animal in the boot of a car in soaring temperatures in the full knowledge and understanding that it will not survive such treatment, must surely be eligible for some custodial sentence.
When it comes to preventing cruelty to animals, we must all be vigilant. We are the ears and eyes of the agencies that seek to prevent cruelty to animals, and to challenge it where it takes place. We all have a responsibility to report cruelty or neglect wherever we find it. Courts across the United Kingdom must send out a clear signal that wilful cruelty to animals will not be tolerated and will be taken extremely seriously. There should be harsher custodial sentences, and greater penalties should be imposed on those who are found guilty of wilful cruelty than currently seems to be the case.
We are a nation of animal lovers, and our courts need to reflect that. I am interested to hear what Minister will have to say about harsher penalties being set for some of the worst examples of wilful cruelty to pets.
I apologise for my ever so slightly late arrival, Mr Hollobone. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) on securing it. She is otherwise known nowadays as Detective Turley—but that is another matter.
I pay tribute to the animal welfare charities that have worked tirelessly to raise the profile of the seriousness of animal cruelty in this country: Dogs Trust, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, Blue Cross, Cats Protection—not often mentioned in this context—and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. I think that every Member who has spoken has outlined articulately that it is cruel and unacceptable in a civilised society that people should be able to get away with behaviour such as we are discussing. The briefing prepared by Battersea Dogs and Cats Home for the debate points out that a 2005 report observed that
“between 71% and 83% of women entering domestic violence shelters reported that their partners also abused or killed the family pet.”
I do not think that will surprise anyone in the room, and it further illustrates some of the points that have been made.
The change in the law demanded by my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar is long overdue. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 made a provision for increased sentencing, but it has never been implemented. We need to see it implemented now, and at the level recommended by hon. Members today—with a five-year maximum sentence for animal cruelty of the severest kind. That would send out a message that animal cruelty will not be tolerated in our society.
We like to think of ourselves as a country that is at the forefront of best practice when it comes to animal welfare—that we love our animals—but I am ashamed to say that we are way behind. Let us get in line with practice in Northern Ireland. The powerful contribution made by the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) was really helpful because it illustrated another point: not only must we increase sentencing to the maximum available in Northern Ireland, but we need to remember that cultural change is required in our courts. The courts need to understand that implementation of the harsher sentencing guidelines will be required to make the change effective.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend, and with others who have pointed out that a register of abusers would be an effective way forward. All those things are important.
I want to finish with a comment about the RSPCA. My hon. Friend the Member for Redcar described brilliantly the work that the charity does, pointing to the statistics relating to its investigative work and its work to bring abusers to court and secure convictions. The RSPCA is the oldest animal welfare charity in the country, and no other charity does what it does. It is rooted in our history of tackling animal welfare abuse. It has a very good reputation and it has the expertise and experience not just to deliver the investigative work that we need to enforce the Animal Welfare Act effectively but the carry out the prosecuting aspects of its work. We need to think carefully, therefore, about the RSPCA’s role. In general, we need to support the charity and its continued work in bringing animal abusers to justice. Those who would attack the RSPCA’s role need to think carefully about the impact of what they are arguing for.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) on bringing the debate before the House. I recognise her strong interest in the matter: I understand that she queued for many hours to table her Animal Cruelty (Sentencing) Bill. I thank all hon. Members for their powerful contributions so far.
This subject should be revisited on a regular basis, not least, as hon. Members have said, because of the strong public interest it attracts. We have heard described today some absolutely abhorrent crimes. As the hon. Member for Redcar explained, the principal legislation in England and Wales is the Animal Welfare Act 2006. The equivalent legislation in Scotland is the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006, which contains similar offences and provides for sentences of up to 12 months’ imprisonment or a £20,000 fine.
I essentially want to say two things. First, I remain sympathetic to the case for stronger sentences. It is a strong case, particularly for the worst of the incidents we have heard about, and I certainly do not see any reason why the provision for 12-month sentences has not yet been implemented in England and Wales. Secondly, it is important to remember that sentencing is only one small part of the action required to reduce the number of animal cruelty crimes across the UK.
I shall take those points in turn. As regards maximum sentencing, we have heard a lot of horrendous detail about some crimes that have committed in recent months, but we also need to keep in mind, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) said, that many of the animal cruelty cases that make it to the courts and into the newspapers seem to arise out of lack of awareness, transient personal problems, ignorance and even mental health issues. Without in any way playing down the suffering caused to the animals involved, it is important to keep that type of case in mind when considering sentencing options.
I would be slow to say that an increased maximum penalty across the board is the correct way forward, but one alternative worth considering is to separate out offences of deliberate cruelty from those that are, in essence, acts of negligence. The legislation in England and Wales, and in Scotland, seems to incorporate both kinds of act into the same offence, with the same maximum sentence. If deliberate infliction of suffering was made a separate offence, I do not see how anyone could oppose an increased maximum sentence, so that those engaged in torturing animals or in organised fighting, for example, could face a more severe punishment that reflected the public’s disapproval. They could receive a sentence that matched the crime. So in short, some increase in sentencing powers is a good idea.
My second point is that we should not see maximum sentencing as any sort of silver bullet, because there are other things we need to look at. For a start, there is not much point in increasing maximum sentences if courts are not using the full range of their current powers. That is why it is certainly welcome that the Sentencing Council for England and Wales has proposed new guidelines with the intention of ensuring that the most serious cases attract custodial sentences of an appropriate length. Equally, I welcomed the evidence given recently by the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee here at Westminster. The witness said:
“The Scottish court system in the last four or five years has improved for intentional acts against animals. We are getting far more bans now. We are finally seeing some people being jailed”.
But moving away from sentencing altogether, the same witness said that
“for a lot of the people we deal with, it is neglect and ignorance, so that is why we keep banging the education drum. We have the biggest outreach programme for children in Scotland: 340,000 children spoken to last year. They are the owners next year and in the next 10 years, so we can prevent some of them coming into it”.
So let us also keep in mind the role that education can play in preventing acts of animal cruelty. The SSPCA programme involves education officers, animal rescue officers and inspectors speaking to primary school children between the ages of eight and 11. Recent research by the University of Edinburgh has highlighted the hugely beneficial impact that such programmes can have, including increasing knowledge, creating positive attitudes and decreasing children’s tolerance of animal cruelty. Since the scheme was first implemented in 2010, the SSPCA has seen a 382% increase in the number of calls from children alerting the charity to cases of animals in need of help or cases of neglect.
That reminds us also of the importance of increasing public awareness, which my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran mentioned, and ensuring that everyone knows what to do if they suspect an offence and that those who no longer feel up to the task of looking after an animal know where to seek appropriate assistance. I also agree that buying a pet on Gumtree is utterly unacceptable.
There is a case for tougher sentences in the worst cases, but I would be reluctant to look at the whole range of offences on the same terms. We must always remember the other things we need to get on with, so that rather than dealing with offences after they have occurred we do what we can to prevent them from happening in the first place.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am pleased to respond to today’s very important debate, and I am profoundly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) for securing it. I commend the work she is doing on animal welfare, particularly with the private Member’s Bill she is sponsoring.
Alongside other Members on this side of the House, I fully support the campaign. Given the cases of animal cruelty in the Minister’s East Surrey constituency, I hope he will be equally supportive. As my hon. Friends know, I am a big softie when it comes to animals. I cried when I watched “Bambi”. When the television adverts about animal cruelty come on, I swap channels. I am the proud granny and sitter of our baby, Reg the Staffie, who is my daughter Angharad’s dog. He is 11 and has fought off cancer four times. He is a gentle soul who is brighter than some people I know. He is completely loyal. One day I took him to the sand dunes for a walk and a woman came along with four Rottweilers off their leads, and they attacked Reg. He was being savaged by four of the biggest dogs I had ever seen. Not thinking about my own safety, I dived in, because that is what we do when we love our dogs. The woman seemed quite unconcerned when she tried to call them off, and therein lies the problem—responsible ownership. The problem is with people, not animals. Pets give us unconditional love, and owners should return that love and not treat animals in the way that some have, as Members have told us today. Reg, I am pleased to say, is okay.
People who are cruel to animals are cowards, bullies and thugs and include those who have made money from dog farming or puppy farms. Some own a dangerous dog to enhance their hard image. The majority of people treat animals well, but we are here today to talk about those who do not. It is not a new problem—it is a long-term societal issue.
The stories that have been mentioned today have been devastating—please forgive me, but in the short time I have, I will not mention Members individually—but it is not the first time these stories have been told and it is not the first time the issue has been debated in this House. In 2013, the House debated RSPCA prosecutions. In October 2013, there was a debate on sentencing tariffs. In July 2015, we debated sentencing for cruelty to domestic pets. In March this year, we debated sentencing for dog theft. In June this year, we debated dog fighting. Today, we debate animal cruelty sentencing.
In a report published on 21 September 2016 by the Justice Committee, it stated:
“Specifically the intention is to ensure that the most serious cases do attract custodial sentences and that the length of such sentences is appropriate, while also providing more nuanced factors for judging the seriousness of an offence.”
That report goes on to conclude:
“We agree with the Sentencing Council’s proposals regarding animal cruelty offences and welcome the seriousness attached to the gravest of cases for such offences.”
Despite that, the Government are yet to make any significant changes. The Minister and his colleagues have simply sat on their hands and provided empty excuses for their complacency. Will the Minister please commit to changing the law for the vulnerable animals that have been exploited and abused, so that their attackers will face justice that reflects the true gravity of their actions?
I look forward to the Minister answering the questions posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar and other Members. Will he also consider unduly lenient sentencing and uplifting sentences? Will he monitor, reassess and review sentences? Does he think that prosecutors should undergo special training for cruelty against animal cases? Will he consider making offences triable either way or making it so that the most serious go to the Crown court? I am sure all hon. Members will agree that this debate will send out a strong and powerful message that animal cruelty must stop and that sentences must represent the seriousness of these crimes.
I thank you, Mr Hollobone, for your efficient chairing of proceedings today. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) on securing today’s debate on animal cruelty and the skilful way in which she is handling her private Member’s Bill. She is airing the issues here in advance of the Bill being brought before the House. As the Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), rightly put it, this issue should go beyond party politics. I understand the strength of feeling about offences against animals and why people feel anger towards those who commit such crimes.
So far as the Government are concerned, this matter sits between the Ministry of Justice and DEFRA. I assure the hon. Member for Redcar that the Government take animal welfare seriously. I know that the topic is of widespread concern to many. I also appreciate the concerns about those who carry out appalling acts of cruelty on defenceless animals and the wider implications of the links between animal and human abuse. The research carried out by Teesside University has been mentioned, and I assure Members that we will look at it closely.
Northern Ireland and Scotland have also been mentioned in the debate. The question was asked why, if Northern Ireland can increase the maximum penalty for animal cruelty to five years, England and Wales cannot. Penalties are devolved to Northern Ireland. Each jurisdiction decides the appropriate maximum sentence for each offence, but we will look at the experience of Northern Ireland and Scotland and the impact the changes have specifically on offending behaviour. That is what we want to look at. We want to ensure that increasing the maximum sentence has an impact on offending behaviour.
While it may be DEFRA that deals with animal welfare, it is the justice system that deals with sentencing. It is up to our courts to decide the length of sentence, but a maximum sentence of only six months gives the court very little flexibility. If we increased that maximum sentence dramatically, the courts would have much more flexibility in dealing with cases.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I will come on to the six-month point in a second, but on the five-year point, a maximum five-year sentence would be the equivalent of a sentence for gross bodily harm of a human being. Those are serious offences, and we do not have to stand back. The penalties need to work across the board. In other words, if we increase the penalty to five years in line with GBH, we will have to look at sentencing across the board. That is something the Government need to do to ensure consistency in the criminal law, which is important. As far as Scotland is concerned, again this is a devolved matter.
As is often said, however, prevention is better than cure. To that end, some animal welfare organisations help educate youngsters in animal welfare. I should mention the role of the RSPCA, as other Members have. It does great work in schools. Blue Cross, too, works in schools with children to help them become informed, responsible and active citizens. It is interesting to note from my research for the debate that the RSPCA has been campaigning for and enforcing animal welfare legislation for nearly 200 years. In that time the organisation has built huge expertise in animal welfare. It of course not only prosecutes people, but provides advice to owners about how to look after their animals properly. The Government recognise that tremendous effort, and it is to the credit of the RSPCA that it has improved the lives of many animals.
I am, however, aware of horrible cases, some of which have been mentioned today, specifically the one involving the Frankish brothers and their pet bulldog. I hope that Members appreciate that I am unable to respond specifically on the details of that case, but many people consider the penalty to have been too lenient. On that point, I would pick up on another issue that was raised: how we deal with unduly lenient sentencing. The Attorney General refers some sentences he considers unduly lenient to the Court of Appeal to reconsider. Those are summary-only offences and so animal cruelty is not currently within that scheme. That includes assault on humans and common assault, which are also not within the scheme. The Government are considering the scope of the scheme and how to implement our 2015 Conservative manifesto commitment to expand it.
On sentencing, we should remember that it is a matter for our independent courts. The court is best placed to decide on the appropriate penalty for an offence because it is in possession of the full facts of the case, many of which might not be reported in the newspapers. When deciding what sentence to impose within the maximum limits available, the courts are required to take account of all the circumstances of an offender, as well as mitigating and aggravating factors.
On maximum penalties, it is worth stressing that while sentencing is a matter for the courts, setting the framework that the courts work within is a matter for Parliament, as we all know as legislators. The maximum sentence of six months’ imprisonment for causing unnecessary suffering to an animal was set by Parliament to cover the most serious imaginable behaviours for that specific offence. It was only last year that the maximum fine for causing unnecessary suffering to an animal was raised from £20,000 to an unlimited fine, although I note the point made by the hon. Member for Redcar that in imposing that fine, the courts often means-test it to make sure that it is payable. I am aware of that nuance.
Not at all. On the contrary, what I was saying is that any change in sentencing in one part of the law has to be made consistent across the entire criminal justice system. If there were a sentence of five years, we would need to look at other offences of a similar nature that have a five-year sentence to make sure that there is consistency. My point is about consistency in criminal law rather than about distinguishing between one form of cruelty and another.
The Government recognise that maximum penalties should be set to allow the courts to respond appropriately to the full range of cases that they are likely to face—my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton made that point. It is worth looking at some data. In 2015, 614 people were sentenced for the offence of causing, permitting or failing to prevent unnecessary suffering to an animal. The average custodial sentence was nearly three and a half months. If judges are not going up to the maximum six months, there is a question whether the issue is with the maximum sentence length or the courts are finding the current sentencing powers inadequate or restrictive in dealing with those cases. We have to look at that.
The maximum penalty for animal cruelty offences is under review. I assure the hon. Member for Redcar that we are also looking at that very closely in the context of broader criminal law. We do not want to create anomalies with other criminal offences. It is worth bearing in mind that the offence of common assault also has a maximum penalty of six months. In other words, if we were going to make a change here, we would have to look at the area of common assault as well.
It would be contrary to our system of justice simply to impose the maximum penalty, regardless of the circumstances, for any offence. Making all sentences the same would remove the courts’ ability to single out and highlight the more serious cases with more serious sentences. In short, prescribing sentences in that way could lead to injustices that we would want to avoid.
The sentencing guidelines for animal cruelty offences are issued by the independent Sentencing Council, as the House is aware. The council has recently consulted on revised guidelines for sentencing in the magistrates courts, which includes animal cruelty offences. The revised guidelines are designed to highlight the aggravating factors that are particular to those offences. That will assist magistrates in identifying the most serious cases that will in turn deserve longer sentences. Throughout the development of the guidelines, the council worked closely with the RSPCA and is now reviewing consultation responses and developing definitive new guidelines, which it intends to implement in May next year.
A point was made about a register for animal abusers, to prevent them from obtaining animals in the first place. DEFRA has no plans to introduce an animal abusers register. I do not consider it appropriate or necessarily proportionate, because we would then expect pet vendors and animal rehoming centres to check the details of all prospective animal owners. That would be quite an onerous approach.
I thank the hon. Lady for that point. I have tried to stress that the Government are in listening mode on a number of proposals, but that is why there is not a register—we see that it is actually quite difficult in practice to check everyone who wants to rehome an animal. The point that was made about going on Gumtree and buying a pet is relevant here, and we will look at that as well.
I will bring my comments to a swift conclusion. I welcome this important debate and appreciate that there are concerns about those who carry out appalling acts of cruelty on defenceless animals. The Ministry of Justice is working with DEFRA with respect to animal cruelty offences, including animal fighting. As I have said, we will keep the maximum penalties for those offences under review. That includes monitoring sentencing trends, looking at the impact on offending behaviour in Northern Ireland and Scotland and identifying whether any evidence emerges that the courts may be finding their sentencing powers inadequate.
Finally, although I have focused on the justice issues, I understand that the hon. Member for Redcar will be meeting Lord Gardiner, the DEFRA Minister responsible for animal welfare. I hope that reinforces the fact that both the Ministry of Justice and DEFRA are addressing the issue of animal cruelty with the seriousness it deserves.
I am extremely grateful to the Minister for that response, which was thoughtful and considered. We appreciate the tone and the openness with which he is engaging with us, and the fact that he is keen to look forward. I hope that as we build towards the Bill we can continue to have that conversation, both with the Minister and with DEFRA. I appreciate that.
I was glad that the Minister referred to the Teesside University research, which is groundbreaking and symbolic in making the link between animal cruelty and abuse of human beings. It should be considered in the context of the Minister’s point about relevance and severity within sentencing more broadly. Although I take his point about consistency and parity, it is important to acknowledge that there are already many inconsistencies in sentencing in the criminal justice system. There is already no parity, so, for me, that cannot be a reason to strike out the idea of raising a sentence.
I appreciated the Minister’s point about looking at whether animal cruelty sentences can be referred to the Court of Appeal, if we feel that they are not sufficiently strong. That is really important and deserves more exploration.
I am grateful to all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate today. We have seen a real strength of feeling and a sense of support around sentencing. The issue of a register of offenders, raised by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello), is important and warrants more investigation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) said, not least because of the link to social services. We are talking not just about people who might be put on a register, but people who have undertaken serious offences. I do not think it is considerably onerous for organisations to undertake a quick online check, as they might already do for a criminal record or something of that nature.
A number of hon. Members raised points about education and awareness. They were absolutely right. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), in a very moving speech, talked about culture change within the judiciary and society, and about taking offences seriously so that if we do raise the sentencing limit, they are dealt with with due diligence. The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) is absolutely right about broader awareness, and I pay tribute again to charities that do that work.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).