I had positive discussions with the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice prior to my announcement on 30 September that the Government plan to increase the maximum penalty for animal cruelty from the current six months to five years’ imprisonment.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. Recent research from Battersea has shown that two thirds of the British public would indeed like sentencing to be increased, as the average sentence was only 3.3 months in 2015 once credit for a guilty plea was taken into account. However, will the Secretary of State reassure my constituents that the courts have indicated a desire for those increased sentencing powers such that they will actually get used once they are in place?
Absolutely. I thank my hon. Friend for raising this. He has a distinguished legal career of bringing prosecutions against individuals who have been responsible for acts of animal cruelty, and we are all grateful to him for his work. It is the case that the courts have indicated that there are specific, exceptional cases of genuine sadism for which a penalty greater than that of the maximum six months is required.
I welcome this proposal, having secured a debate on this issue in Westminster Hall in the last Parliament. This issue is extremely important, particularly in relation to dog fighting, which is an appalling act of animal cruelty. During last year’s debate, it was said that the policing of such crimes and the funding for that need to be increased. What is the Minister planning to do in that regard?
The hon. Lady makes a very good point. Of course, sentencing decisions and, indeed, policing matters are devolved, but one thing we do at DEFRA is to work closely with the Home Office to ensure that examples of animal cruelty that need to focus the minds of police forces on more effective investigation are at the heart of our shared conversations.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic have similar sentences, and it is also the case that similar sentences apply in other Commonwealth jurisdictions, including Australia, Canada and New Zealand. It is a sign of our capacity to learn from other nations, both within and outside the European Union, about what a genuinely progressive approach to animal welfare might be.