[Relevant Documents: Second Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Pre-Legislative Scrutiny of the draft Animal Welfare (Sentencing and Recognition of Sentience) Bill 2017, HC 709, and the Government Response, HC 984.]
I can inform the House that Mr Speaker has certified the whole Bill, in accordance with Standing Order No. 83J, as being within devolved legislative competence and relating exclusively to England and Wales.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill delivers another important commitment from the Government on animal welfare, cementing our place as a world leader in the care and protection of animals. Under the current legislation, the Animal Welfare Act 2006, the maximum penalty for animal cruelty offences is six months’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. The Bill extends the current maximum penalty to five years’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine for the worst animal cruelty offences relating to animal welfare in England and Wales. It is a simple yet vital measure to ensure that those who perpetrate cruelty on animals are subjected to the full force of the law.
We all agree that there is no place for animal cruelty in this country. Those who mistreat and abuse animals through unacceptable activities such as dog fighting, the abuse of pet animals, and cruelty to farm animals will be faced with tougher responses from the courts. An increase in the maximum custodial sentence from six months to five years will help to deter people from committing detestable acts against animals, and will demonstrate that such behaviour is not tolerated in this country.
Is the Minister aware of the growing concern about the welfare of tethered horses? Many horses are attached to a short rope all day long, next to a highway, with no water and surrounded by ragwort, which is harmful to them. However, the authorities seem reluctant to take action. Might the reason be that the law is not quite clear enough in this respect, and if so, could that be addressed by the Bill?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention, and for his concern about horse tethering. I share that concern, which is why we recently had a roundtable meeting with the relevant welfare groups and authorities to discuss how we could achieve best practice in this regard. I think that there have been some case studies—particularly in the Swansea area, if I remember correctly—and that real action has been taken. We need to spread that best practice far and wide.
It is a pleasure to introduce this important Bill. We committed ourselves in September 2017 to increasing maximum sentences for animal cruelty offences, and in December 2017 we published our draft Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny. That followed the introduction of the Animal Fighting (Sentencing) Bill in July 2016 by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), and the introduction of the Animal Cruelty (Sentencing) Bill, also in July 2016, by the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley). I pay tribute to both of them and the supporters of their Bills; I thank them for their hard work.
I am delighted to have secured the parliamentary time to introduce this small but incredibly valuable Government Bill, which is of great importance to the House, the animal welfare community and the public more widely. I pay tribute to all who campaigned for the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Act 2019, popularly known as Finn’s law, which is closely linked to the Bill. Finn is a police dog fondly known as Fabulous Finn to his friends, and a distinguished example of the incredible bravery and hard work of service animals. This Bill will ensure that those who cause injury to a service animal will receive a proportionate penalty for their horrific actions; I will speak on this in more detail a little later.
Many animal welfare charities and other organisations have been calling for increased sentencing for a number of years. I thank them for their campaigning on the matter and for ensuring that this issue has remained at the top of the agenda: Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, Blue Cross, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the League Against Cruel Sports, to name but a few, have been incredibly effective in their support for an increase in the maximum penalties, and I praise their tireless efforts. Claire Horton, chief executive of Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, stated that the introduction of this Bill is a “landmark achievement”.
This Bill is indeed a landmark step forward for animal welfare in this country. It demonstrates our commitment to protecting this nation’s animals. I pay tribute to Northern Ireland and my hon. Friends in the Democratic Unionist party for setting such a great example in support of animal welfare; Northern Ireland has already introduced a higher maximum penalty of five years for animal cruelty offences, which we are pleased to be able to match in England and Wales.
I also pay tribute to those hon. Members who have consistently advocated introducing this Bill, notably my hon. Friend—most of the time my friend—the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. He can be grumpy on occasions—[Interruption.] Oh, he is there! I had not realised he was behind me! Indeed, I thank all members of the Committee, who tirelessly press the Government on this issue.
Our Bill and the proposals therein on animal welfare sentencing have received strong support from across the House, and I am grateful to the Opposition Front- Bench team, not least the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) for her full and wholesome support; it is much appreciated.
Thirteen years ago in 2006 when the Animal Welfare Act was going through its stages, I proposed an amendment that would do exactly what this Bill does, so may I thank the Minister for bringing it in but express regret that it has taken 13 years to do so?
I am pleased the Bill is before us today; sometimes these things take time—too often in animal welfare—but I am really pleased that through working together across this House we have seen a number of pieces of legislation come forward in recent weeks and months. That is because we are working so closely together. I am extraordinarily grateful for that and for the support we have had from the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), who has long called for higher sentencing.
It is also important to recognise the hard work of our Whips. They are not able to speak on this matter, but I know that my hon. Friends the Members for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) and for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) are very keen for this legislation to come through. It would be remiss of me not also to mention the irrepressible hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), who is a complete enthusiast for this Bill and I am sure would love to be associated with it.
The Bill amends the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which currently sets out a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine for the more serious prevention of harm offences. That is much lower than the current European average for animal welfare offences, which is two years; indeed many countries have much higher maximum penalties. I am pleased to say that the Bill introduces one of the toughest punishments in the world and will bring us in line with the maximum penalties in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Ireland, India and Latvia, which are all five years’ imprisonment.
The Government published the draft Bill for consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny in December 2017 as part of the Animal Welfare (Sentencing and Recognition of Sentience) Bill. The consultation closed in January 2018 and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs received over 9,000 direct responses to it; 70% of respondents agreed with the new maximum penalties. In the summary of responses document, the Government committed to bringing forward the sentencing clauses in a separate Bill as recommended by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee scrutiny report in January 2018.
There have been a number of recent cases related to serious animal welfare offences in which judges have expressed a desire to impose a higher penalty or custodial sentence than that currently provided for under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. For example, in 2016 an 18-year-old man kicked his girlfriend’s pet spaniel to death in an horrific attack. The dog was kicked repeatedly so hard that her brain stem detached. The man was sentenced to six months in prison and ordered to pay costs and victim surcharges of more than £1,000. The judge at the magistrates court said that he would have imposed a stronger, longer sentence if the law had allowed it. It was a sickening act of deliberate cruelty and in such cases a higher sentence would have been favourable for the court.
If I may, I would like to give another horrific example of where the judge explicitly told the court that he would have imposed a longer sentence if the guidelines had allowed. In November 2016 a man gave a dog painkillers and then beat her to death with a shovel. The man was sentenced to four months in prison and was disqualified from keeping all animals for life. That sentence was clearly not appropriate for such a dreadful act, and we need to change that, and we will now.
This Bill relates closely to the warmly received Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Act 2019, commonly known as Finn’s law, which prevents those who attack or injure service animals from claiming self-defence. It received Royal Assent on 8 April 2019, and I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald), who is also in his place, for steering the Bill so skilfully through this House.
When this Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill is enacted, those who cause harm to a service animal in the course of the animal’s duty could be subject to a maximum sentence of five years. The intention of Finn’s law was to increase the maximum penalty for animal cruelty as well as improving the protection of service animals. We are now completing the increased protection of service animals with this Bill, and as a result achieving what the Committee and campaigners have worked so hard for.
The Bill is due to commence two months after Royal Assent and has a limited impact on costs to the criminal justice system. The increase in maximum penalties will not result in an increase in the number of offenders being sent to prison; it will result only in the potential length of time that might be served by the most serious offenders. We have been in discussion with the Ministry of Justice on this matter, and the Government consider that this may lead to some marginal extra costs to the criminal justice system which are unlikely to be more than £500,000 per annum. DEFRA has agreed with the Ministry of Justice to take on the costs, as set out in the explanatory notes.
While some offences committed under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 may be more minor incidents, there are unfortunately cases of serious or systematic cruelty. For example, some forms of animal cruelty, such as dog fighting, can be linked to organised crime and are carried out for financial gain through betting and prize money.
The Minister talked about the extra cost involved. If a case has to go to the Crown court, very often animals will have to be kept in custody or in care in kennels, so that will cost more. We also need to make sure we have proper kennelling so that the whole court system can cope. We very much welcome the extra sentencing, but that knock-on effect needs to be dealt with as well.
Once again, my hon. Friend speaks with authority on the subject, and he can be assured that we are working through all those details. I just want to underline that costs will be covered through the arrangements put in place.
As I was saying, dog fighting inflicts a high level of suffering on the animals involved. We believe that in such cases, where the level of cruelty and culpability is so high, a higher sentence is clearly justified, and I am sure that the House agrees.
The Bill is a simple measure, amounting to just two clauses, but with a very positive outcome. Clause 1 is the Bill’s main clause; it outlines the mode of trial and maximum penalty for certain animal welfare offences. As I previously outlined, under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 the maximum penalty in practice is currently six months and/or an unlimited fine. The clause changes the maximum custodial sentence available for five key offences: causing unnecessary suffering to a protected animal; carrying out a non-exempted mutilation; docking the tail of a dog, except where permitted; administering a poison to an animal; and involvement in an animal fight.
The Bill is hugely welcome. However, I am concerned about the narrowness of its scope, and my investigations have not been able to satisfy me that there are no potential areas of obscurity in it. Given that the Bill applies to domestic animals and not to wild animals, what is the situation in regard to, say, feral cats? Would somebody who did harm to their neighbour’s cat be subject to a different maximum sentence from somebody who did harm to a cat that was effectively feral and unattached?
We can talk about that in more detail in Committee, but it is clear that this is about animals that are under the control of man. So in a situation where a feral cat was under the control of a man or woman and was experiencing unnecessary harm, the Bill would apply.
I apologise for coming in a bit late. The Minister might have covered this earlier, but will the courts have discretion in relation to the maximum sentence? Am I right in thinking that there will be a scale?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Just to clarify, we are discussing the maximum penalty; there will be other gradations that the courts will see fit to use. It is important to highlight, as I have done with a couple of case studies, that the courts felt they did not have the right sentencing available, given the horrific nature of some of the crimes they had been looking at. The Bill is about providing a maximum. The hon. Gentleman must be psychic, because I was about to come to that point. Under clause 1, the existing maximum penalty of six months will be retained if the offender is summarily convicted. However, offenders may now receive a higher penalty of up to five years’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine if they are convicted on trial by indictment.
Clause 2 outlines that the Bill will come into force two months after Royal Assent. The application of revised maximum penalties is not retrospective and does not apply to offences committed before the Bill comes into force. The clause also specifies the short title of the Bill, and provides for the Bill to extend to England and Wales. Animal welfare is a fully devolved matter, as many Members know. However, in this case the Welsh Government have confirmed that the maximum penalty should also apply in Wales, and the Bill is drafted on that basis. The Welsh Government are preparing a legislative consent motion so that the Bill can be extended and applied in Wales.
It is the Government’s view that the subject matter of this Bill is considered to be within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly. I have commended Northern Ireland for having already set the maximum penalty for animal cruelty offences at five years’ imprisonment in August 2016, and I am pleased that the Scottish Government have announced their intention to do so as well. This country has some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world, but our maximum penalties are currently among the lowest. An increase to five years’ imprisonment should be introduced to enable the courts to have more appropriate sentences at their disposal for the most serious crimes of animal cruelty, and to reinforce our position as a world leader on animal welfare.
The Government are pleased to be taking forward this positive step on animal welfare. Just a month ago, we introduced a ban on third-party sales of puppies and kittens, and we have introduced mandatory CCTV in slaughterhouses. The Bill follows the previously mentioned passing of Finn’s law and we are also demonstrating the importance of the value of wild animals with the Wild Animals in Circuses Bill progressing well through the other place. The Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill is a fundamental step in ensuring that we have an appropriate response to those who inflict deliberate suffering on innocent animals and, for the reasons I have set out, I commend the Bill to the House.
Today has been a long time coming. We welcome the Government bringing forward this vital piece of legislation, although we regret that it has taken this long, considering that it has widespread support across the House and with the general public. I hope the Bill manages to make it through both Houses and on to the statute book in a timely fashion. It is imperative that it should receive Royal Assent and come into force as soon as possible so that our courts can start handing out appropriate sentences to those people convicted of inflicting terrible harm on innocent animals.
I want to thank the hon. Lady for the cross-party support that she has given to get this legislation on to the statute book. I agree that that must be done quickly. The Bill has had cross-party support not only in the Select Committee but across Parliament, so let us try to get Royal Assent as soon as possible. Too many lenient sentences are being handed down for horrific welfare crimes at the moment.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his well-made point, which I think we can all support.
It is absolutely right that we should seek to increase the maximum penalty for animal welfare offences from six months to five years. Britain can be proud of having some of the best animal welfare practices and legislation in the world, and the Bill does what it needs to do to enhance that reputation. The landmark Animal Welfare Act 2006 is something that, as a Labour Member, I am very proud of, because our Government brought it forward. Now, delivering maximum sentencing through the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill will ensure that our high standard is maintained and builds on those original foundations.
I am aware that many Members right across the House have campaigned for this issue and for this Bill to come forward, but I would like to make a couple of particular mentions. First my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) has made a huge contribution in this House, working with Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, to put forward her private Member’s Bill. That campaign was supported when it first came to the House by many hon. Members from both sides, and I am pleased that we are making such good progress now. I would also like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for her hard work on this issue. I also thank the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and its Chair, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish).
The last time I spoke on this matter on the Floor of the House was in spring 2017, following the publication of the Select Committee’s excellent report covering third-party puppy sales and maximum sentencing. We then had the short-lived draft Bill that would have covered sentencing and the recognition of animal sentience. From that, however, Ministers went back to the drawing board, which is why, to some extent, it has taken so long to get to this stage. After two years’ delay, it is really good that the Government have finally brought forward this Bill, because it is important that sentences for animal cruelty should act as a deterrent. I welcome this.
We are supporting the Bill today, but we will seek to improve it in Committee. We have concerns, which are shared by a number of stakeholders, about the scope of the Bill. This has already been mentioned in an intervention. The proposals apply only to the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and therefore do not apply to wild animals in the way that they apply to domestic animals. Our concern is that this creates a two-tier system, even if by oversight as opposed to intention. The same sentences should be available to judges for similar or identical crimes, regardless of whether the animal is domesticated or wild.
I took the Animal Welfare Bill through, and I disagree with the hon. Lady’s understanding. It is possible to commit acts of cruelty only when we as human beings have power over an animal. We must deliver the animal’s five freedoms, and it does not matter whether the animal is domesticated or wild. It is our power over the creature that determines an act of cruelty. I do not think that her accusation of a two-tier system is a fair one.
That is an interesting consideration, and one that will be explored within the legal system. I am sure that we can look into it further in Committee. To give an example, the RSPCA reports that a man was jailed for just 22 weeks after he was convicted of setting his dogs on a pet cat and a fox. It is important that harming the fox can carry the same sentence as harming the family pet in those circumstances, and the law must reflect that.
I thought I was clear. In the case the hon. Lady just referred to, it was the dog that did the harm to the fox or the neighbour’s cat, not the human being. That is where the differentiation arises. Had he been torturing any of the animals, he would immediately have fallen foul of this Bill.
But if any person directs an animal to do such appalling harm, should not that person bear some responsibility?
The Sentencing Council recommends that if a defendant pleads guilty at the first reasonable opportunity, the sentence may be cut by a third, so someone who commits the most serious crime against animals and pleads guilty could end up serving only four months in prison. I think we would all agree that that is an incredibly inadequate sentence for some of the crimes we have heard about.
The Minister mentioned that many people have campaigned for the increase, and I would like to mention groups such as the League Against Cruel Sports, the Dogs Trust, Blue Cross, the RSPCA and Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, all of which have campaigned strongly for the measure, having previously expressed concern about the leniency of sentencing.
We should pay tribute to those organisations for all they have done over many years. Battersea Dogs and Cats Home has done an excellent job—in fact, my hon. Friend probably met its representatives when they came here last week.
I agree absolutely. There has been huge support for increasing the sentences for animal cruelty, and Battersea Dogs and Cats Home has been particularly keen to get the law changed.
I support the Minister absolutely in his view that we need to crack down on dog fighting and hand down the sentences that are appropriate for that crime. The Dogs Trust says that the woefully inadequate sentences currently available are cause for serious concern—as the Minister said, we have some of the shortest sentences worldwide. I am pleased to hear that Wales is also to take forward these measures.
There is no parity in the law—for example, if someone harms a service dog, the penalties are much higher than if they harm a pet or a farm animal. We believe that wild animals too should be covered. There is also no consistency in sentencing: a person can be sent to prison for three years if their dog injures a guide dog, but if they beat a dog to death the maximum sentence is six months. In Northern Ireland, five-year maximum sentences are already in place. It is important that we achieve consistency across the UK. Hopefully, the recent consultation in Scotland will enable us to harmonise the law right across the UK.
The Minister mentioned the connection between animal cruelty and criminal behaviour. We know that people convicted of animal cruelty are five times more likely to have a violent crime record, and that animal abuse is 11 times more likely in domestic violence situations. That is another reason why we need to act now. The legislation will protect not only our beloved animals but people, too. In addition, the Government need to place a statutory duty on local authorities to enforce the Animal Welfare Act, so that it has proper teeth, and to give local authorities adequate resources with which to enforce the regulations under the Act.
If the Government are serious about animal welfare, they must introduce the measures in the other half of the original Bill to enshrine animal sentience in law after we leave the EU. Even better, they could get behind the private Member’s Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East.
Animals have the same welfare needs and any attack on them has the same impact on their welfare, regardless of whether they are a domestic pet, a police dog or a wild animal. They all feel pain; they all suffer. The people who harm them all need to feel the full force of the law.
Do the hon. Lady’s comments about the welfare of animals also apply to animals that are bred for slaughter?
All animals need to be looked after to the best of human ability and should not be abused. We need the highest standards possible in slaughterhouses and abattoirs.
The Opposition welcome the Bill and will support it today.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman). I agree with many of her comments about the importance of the sentencing increase applying generally to cases of animal cruelty and various other offences under the Animal Welfare Act, and how there should be no distinction between particular offences. I welcome the Bill because as well as increasing sentences for animal welfare offences in respect of all animals, it has a special relevance for me and those of us who supported Finn’s law, the Bill that became the Animal Welfare (Service Animals) Act 2019.
When I first met my constituent PC Dave Wardell and Finn, who live in Buntingford, and heard their story, I knew we had to try to change the law. Finn had been badly injured in October 2016, saving Dave’s life in an attack from a knife-wielding suspect, yet there was no separate penalty at court for the attack on this service animal, and the charge was criminal damage, treating Finn as though he was just a piece of kit. Because a seven-year-old police dog is not worth much money and criminal damage is judged by the value of the damage, no separate penalty was imposed at court for the harm done to Finn, despite the fact that the dog was almost killed in the attack, faced a four-hour operation, and had saved his handler’s life. Solicitor Sarah Dixon started a national campaign for Finn’s law that has united press, public and politicians. Both the Daily Mirror and The Sun have supported Finn’s law, and a petition raised over 125,000 signatures.
I first drafted a Bill based on Qanto’s law—a Canadian law named after another brave dog—and was given permission by the House to bring it in as a ten-minute rule Bill in December 2017. I discovered that Ministers had reservations. After many discussions and lots of pressure from supporters, I decided that a different approach was needed—one based on measures in Western Australia. Ministers were worried that, were we to have only an offence of attacking a police dog carry a sentence of five years’ imprisonment, it would not reflect properly the point made by the hon. Member for Workington that the same maximum sentence should be available for ill treatment of all animals. Ministers agreed to go with the Western Australian approach and I presented the replacement Bill, which became the 2019 Act.
The original Bill was drafted with a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment for an attack on a service animal, but Ministers made it clear to me that my new Bill should make it straightforward to prosecute under the Animal Welfare Act for causing unnecessary suffering to a service animal and they would bring in this Bill to increase the sentence for Animal Welfare Act offences against any animal. I have therefore always regarded this measure as Finn’s law part two—putting in a proper maximum sentence.
I had great support for my Bill from Members of all political parties, including the author of the original Animal Welfare Act, the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw). It took many months, but we made progress. Lord Trenchard took the Bill through the House of Lords, and Royal Assent was given on 8 April, as has been mentioned. The Act is now in force. Importantly, Finn attended Parliament on all occasions and helped to get the support we needed. When the Bill finally got through in the other place, Finn let out a loud bark in the Public Gallery, to the amusement of many noble Lords and Baronesses. Very few ten-minute-rule Bills become law, so it was a great moment.
The Finn’s law campaign has maintained the social media pressure, and holds a twice-weekly twitterstorm called “Finn hour” which has been directed very effectively to help change the law. Every mayor and all the police and crime commissioners in our country have supported Finn’s campaign. It has been a privilege to work with the team and to see the part two Bill introduced.
Let me just read out some of the comments I have received from Finn’s law campaigners about this Bill. I have received hundreds of messages of support during “Finn hour”. People have said things such as:
“There are far too many instances of animal cruelty reported every day. The increased sentences are needed urgently”;
“Here’s wishing the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill a speedy and successful passage”;
“Hopefully, a speedy passage. Finn ‘barks’ for…the country”.
It is also important that, in time, this should cover Scotland and Northern Ireland. My colleague Liam Kerr MSP has been pressing in Scotland, and we have met Nicola Sturgeon, with Dave and Finn, and there is now a consultation in Scotland. That shows that Finn is a very effective dog. We are also in touch with Northern Ireland MPs.
Finally, the House may be interested to hear that since the passing of the Bill, Finn, already the most decorated police dog, has continued to collect awards: he won at Crufts; he has been given the freedom of the town of Buntingford; and he was recently a finalist on “Britain’s Got Talent”, where his story and Dave’s pitch for this Bill to become law brought the great Simon Cowell to tears. So, I welcome the Bill; Finn’s law part two takes a big step forward today.
I strongly welcome the measures in this short, simple Bill. I emphasise “simple”, because that is how it needs to stay in order to get it implemented quickly. The changes are long promised, long needed and long overdue.
There is a perception among many people, including, importantly, members of the judiciary, that the sentences available to the courts at the moment to deal with serious offences of cruelty are inadequate, despite the UK having some of the most progressive animal welfare legislation in the world. As we have heard, the maximum penalty for the most serious cases of animal cruelty is still only a maximum of six months in prison, an unlimited fine and/or a ban on keeping animals. Given the level of serious animal neglect, cruelty and violence against animals every day, that does not seem to be acting as a deterrent.
The Minister gave the example of the man who received only a 26-week jail term after he was found guilty of kicking a four-month-old puppy to death. We heard from the shadow Secretary of State about another example, that of the Lancashire man who received only a 22-week sentence and was disqualified from keeping animals for life after the RSPCA obtained a video of him setting his dogs on a pet cat and a fox.
I thank the hon. Lady for making such an important speech. Does she agree that cruelty and a lack of empathy towards animals often translates into cruelty and a lack of empathy towards people? As a psychologist, I know that part of the psychopathy checklist we used to do with patients to measure sociopathy was animal cruelty.
I completely agree with the hon. Lady. Indeed, that was a point I made in the Second Reading debate on the Bill that became the 2006 Act, and I will say more about that later.
When we compare ourselves with every other European country, we see that the maximum sentence for cruelty to animals in England and Wales is woeful. A substantial number of European countries have already legislated for a maximum sentence of between two and three years, and in some cases it is up to five years, as the Minister pointed out. Further afield, Canada, Australia and New Zealand already offer a maximum of five years’ imprisonment. Even within the United Kingdom, the maximum sentences in England and Wales pale in comparison with Scotland’s one-year sentencing power and, even more so, with Northern Ireland’s sentencing power of up to five years. I pay tribute to Northern Ireland for having made progress on this before any other devolved Administration or indeed the UK Parliament. I also recognise that Scotland has announced a consultation on proposals to increase sentences to five years, and I hope the Scottish Parliament sees that consultation through and implements stronger powers, so that we can all be in line and be in the same place as a United Kingdom.
There are several reasons why sentences for animal cruelty need to be increased, not the least of which is that public attitudes have no doubt changed in the 10 years since the passing of the 2006 Act. I served on its Bill Committee and I recall the contribution of the hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin), who led for the shadow team. I remember those sittings clearly. It is now becoming more obvious that the courts, too, want to be given the option to pass tougher sentences for extreme forms of cruelty, with many magistrates and judges asking for an increase in the punishments they have at their disposal. Without this increase in sentencing powers we could also be in the invidious position of facing the prospect of no prison terms for animal cruelty or for fighting with animals being available to the courts, if the Ministry of Justice’s proposal to abolish sentences of six months or less is taken forward and implemented. We need to bear that in mind, and it is another reason why this legislation is so important.
I also want to draw attention to the link with domestic abuse. Blue Cross has pointed out that research clearly suggests a link between animal abuse, domestic abuse and other serious crimes. It found that women in domestic violence shelters were 11 times more likely to report that a partner had hurt or killed pets in the home, as the shadow Secretary of State pointed out. The research also shows a direct correlation between cases of animal abuse and cases of child abuse, with children at risk in 83% of families with a history of animal abuse. It should not surprise any of us to hear of that. We need to do more as a society to join up the investigative powers of social services, the education system and the animal welfare charities, which work so hard to identify cases of animal abuse in homes up and down the country. We could do more to encourage joint working between these different agencies and charities to raise awareness of where the risk lies to animals, children and women, and to people generally.
Before I draw my comments to a conclusion, I want to pay tribute to the Chair of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, of which I am a member, for his leadership of our inquiry—the pre-legislative scrutiny we carried out on the original Bill, which put animal sentience provisions and animal sentencing powers together in the one Bill. It was a very good inquiry, and the recommendation we clearly made was that the two sets of provisions needed to be separated and that we needed to implement the sentencing powers provisions quickly. I am only sorry that it has taken so long to get to this point. A number of Opposition Members have asked the Secretary of State repeatedly when we were finally going to see this Bill on the Floor of the House. We have got here now, so I will leave that there, and just say that I am thankful to be able, at last, to get this on to the statute book.
I hope that the Bill will quickly pass its legislative hurdles and gain Royal Assent later this year, because we need to see these measures enacted. I take the point that there are various other issues that could be addressed in these provisions, such as extending the powers to cover cases involving wild animals, but I think we just need to get on and get this Bill through Parliament and on to the statute book. I know that the animal welfare charities are keen that that should be the case. I have been contacted and asked, “Please keep it simple.” So I understand the debate about other areas of animal welfare policy, but let us just get on with this. It is long overdue and we need to get on with it.
I very much agree with what the hon. Lady is saying. Does she agree that as we are towards the end of the Session and have a limited window in which to do this, we really need to get it done?
I take that point entirely, although it is not the fault of Opposition Members that we are up against it in the way that we are, with, I hope, the Session due to end at some point soon and the Queen’s Speech on its way. We do need to get on with this, and we should keep it simple.
The measure is supported by all the major animal welfare charities. I pay tribute to the work on this issue by Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, Blue Cross, the Dogs Trust and the RSPCA, all of which are worthy charities that I have worked with over a significant number of years. I also wish to mention World Horse Welfare, which of course feels strongly about this issue and needs to be included in any list of tributes to the animal welfare sector for the campaign to increase the sentencing powers.
It is right that the situation in England and Wales comes into line with that in the rest of the UK and in other western countries. I repeat that the current limit of six months, which is often reduced by a third if the defendant pleads guilty, is clearly not adequate and does not act as a deterrent, as shown by the fact that many of the associations that deal with animal cruelty have reported increases in cruelty, especially of the most serious types, despite the Animal Welfare Act being on the statute book.
I conclude by saying again: can we please just get on with this and get it implemented? Let us give the courts the powers that they need.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), who has been a consistent champion of animal welfare since the moment she was elected to this House.
Hooray—Parliament is doing something! At long last we are making it worth while to come here. Colleagues should recognise that this is a broken Parliament. Why is it broken? Because we had an ill-advised general election, which my party obviously decided to hold. It was a disastrous result from my party’s point of view. We lost our majority and cobbled together some sort of alliance with the Democratic Unionist party. It has taken the business managers, who have come and gone over the past two years, a long time to get a grip on what to do in this sort of Parliament. At long last, they seem to have realised that there are things we can do. The Chief Whip has just disappeared, but one of his colleagues is on the Treasury Bench. I say to the business managers: if my party is struggling with a legislative programme for the new Queen’s Speech, why not consult the hon. Member for Southend West? I have a whole range of measures on which I think we could get some sort of cross-party support. Our constituents are very frustrated about the situation. If we are not going to have a general election, we cannot just keep on discussing meaningless motions. We have to get on and do something, and we could do a whole raft of things that could improve the quality of life in this country.
There is no point in our legislating on anything unless we enforce the legislation, so I was puzzled by the exchange earlier when my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) challenged my hon. Friend the Minister about cruelty to tethered horses. I listened to an Adjournment debate led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on that very same issue. It is a puzzle to me, because in 1988, through a ten-minute rule Bill that became an Act of Parliament—the noble Lord Hogg was the Minister at the time—we got on to the statute book an Act to stop horses, ponies and donkeys being cruelly tethered and to make sure that they were properly watered and fed. For goodness’ sake, what has happened to that Act of Parliament? I realise that the longer we are here —I will come to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) in a moment—the more we are forgotten, but that is an Act of Parliament. If we have the law already, it is no good people jumping up with suggestions; we need to do something. We need to enforce the law that already exists, so I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will do something about that.
Does this measure not try to address that very point? We are all extremely frustrated that a good law is not being properly enforced; this measure might help.
My right hon. Friend, who has years of wisdom and experience, is yet again absolutely right. My hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire mentioned the fact that had he been listened to in 2006, the measure we are discussing would have already happened.
I am not going to fall out with the Opposition, but the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) has heard me say before that when the new Labour leader became Prime Minister in 1997, he and his team consulted a huge range of animal charities, and there was, over Labour’s 13 years in government, some disappointment about the failure to deliver. That is except for one issue, on which I might fall out with one or two colleagues, and that is foxhunting. I have always felt—in those days, there were just four or five of us—that the Labour party did a good thing on foxhunting. However, I absolutely empathise with my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire in respect of those 13 years.
I just want to add to the debate something that has not really been discussed. The most recent Labour Government introduced the Animal Welfare Act 2006, under which provision was made to increase sentencing to imprisonment of up to 51 weeks and a fine not exceeding £20,000. We did amend the law, but it never got enacted, which was bizarre. It is important to recognise that we did try to take steps. I do not know why that was not enacted.
I do not think we can have an intervention on an intervention, but the hon. Lady makes a good and valid point that it seems my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire is going to deny.
I am afraid I am. I urge the House also to consider the case of lost dogs, which are now returned to councils rather than to the police. The criminal justice legislation that would have changed sentencing in the way the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) just mentioned was never brought forward by that Labour Government, so I am afraid the buck stopped very much with the Labour Government of the time. Indeed, the Minister concerned subsequently served at Her Majesty’s pleasure himself.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I have already been speaking for six minutes and I have not even started my speech, so I need to move on quickly. We want to get this legislation on to the statute book quickly, and people will be frustrated.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald) mentioned Finn’s law. Given that you are a fellow Essex Member of Parliament, Madam Deputy Speaker, and that my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) was interested in the matter, I should say that I was privileged to be at the event at which Paul Nicholls, together with the chief of police, unveiled the monument to police dogs. I met Finn and the whole thing was just a tear-jerker. My right hon. and learned Friend spoke about the dog barking when the legislation went through the House of Lords, and I can testify to that.
Now to my brief speech. It is true that a dog is a man’s best friend but, as we have heard already, there are too many examples of cruelty. There is a danger that we will talk about more and more horrific things, such as dogs being forced to fight against each other and the latest thing, which is sport trophy hunting. How is it that companies can be trying to attract Brits to go abroad, where these magnificent animals are enclosed, so that they can cut off their tusks and heads and so on? It is absolutely barbaric. Shame on anyone who goes on one of those holidays.
I am told that 26% of households in the United Kingdom own a dog and 18% own a cat. The vast majority of British people look after their pets well. We have one or two farmers present; introducing children to animals at an early age is a good way to get them to treat animals well. I know that not all children can necessarily empathise with animals, but I think that that would help. I join others in saying I am so glad that, as a developed country renowned for its historical championing of animal welfare, we are to have this legislation.
In 2017, the RSPCA investigated 141,760 complaints. That is a huge number. In 2018, the RSPCA phone line received 1.1 million calls. I am sure that none of them was made from the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), but an awful lot were certainly made in Essex. The way in which the animals are protected is the first vital part of the Bill. The second important part is that it will act as a deterrent. The Bill recognises that the root of the problem is really with animal abusers, and although it may take a few months to kick in, all the literature that I have read agrees that this legislation will act as a meaningful deterrent.
There are too many examples of animal cruelty. Recently, in a national newspaper, we heard about a French bulldog that had just had puppies. How could someone have chained that dog to a car—we all saw it—and dragged it along the road? That is just horrendous, and the person responsible has still not been caught. I am glad to say that the RSPCA is on the case.
Just last week, The Independent reported that a driver in Somerset was luring birds on to a road with chips before mowing them down. That is sick behaviour beyond belief. In another shocking example, which took place at the end of last year, a man in the UK hit a dog with a hammer and strangled it with a washing line just because it was getting on his nerves—perhaps he had mental health problems. None the less, these are absolutely despicable incidents, and they are happening in our country.
My hon. Friend mentioned dogs. He will recall that, seven years ago, he and I helped to co-open the Dogs Trust Rehoming Centre at Nevendon in my constituency. I visited it again last week. Will he join me in commending the superb work that it does, rehoming nearly 900 dogs a year? If he wants to talk about compassionate, loving and focused animal welfare, the Dogs Trust is about as good as it gets, and Lisa Cooper and all her staff there are a living embodiment of that.
And the Dogs Trust will be very pleased with that plug that my right hon. Friend has given it. I was there. It is a magnificent Dogs Trust, and my own family has had two rescue pugs from it over the years. It is absolutely fantastic.
My right hon. Friend has just reminded me that, when I entered this place for the first time, animal welfare did not have the high priority that it does today. That is not criticising the background of colleagues; it is just saying that we did not give the matter as high a profile as we do today. I do remember, though, that when my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire had a wonderful debate on monkeys, the House was absolutely packed—but that was quite a rarity.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all the work that he has done on this subject during his parliamentary career; he is really committed to the issue of animal welfare. I hope, therefore, that he will be prepared to volunteer to be a member of the Committee on this Bill, to see that the Minister does indeed look at the important issue of enforcement.
Embarrassingly, my right hon. Friend recognises that I am susceptible to flattery, but as I am on the Panel of Chairs, I do not think that I can also serve on the Committee, much as I would like to.
Let me go back to the Protection Against Cruel Tethering Act 1988. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford was a councillor in Basildon, we opened the horse and pony sanctuary in Pitsea. It is tragic that this big event has been completely whitewashed and here we have legislation and it is not even being enforced. That is very disappointing.
Controversial lady though my good friend Ann Widdecombe is, she and I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill for endangered species some time ago. I am very glad that the Animal Welfare Act 2006—she was still here then—has been as effective as it has.
In 2017, the RSPCA investigated all these complaints. My final point is that there have been only 1,492 prosecutions, so we have a huge number of complaints—more than 1 million phone calls—but very few prosecutions. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will address that. It is very good that we are increasing sentences from six months to over two years, but is there a problem with resources? Do we not have the enforcement officers with local authorities? I am told that the cost of everything that we are putting in place today is about £500,000, which I realise is an awful lot of money.
I think that my hon. Friend is suggesting that he would like to see the number of convictions going up. Actually, I would like to see the number of convictions going down, because people who are committing acts of hideous cruelty are going to prison for a lot longer and are therefore less likely to do the same thing again and are less likely to involve an animal. We should judge this not by the number of convictions, but by the success with which the Bill delivers proper justice for those creatures.
My hon. Friend articulates the point that, hopefully, this sentencing will be an effective deterrent, so we will not have the same number of complaints.
On 23 May, I asked a question in this House about the lack of animal welfare officers in local authorities. I hope that the Minister might have some news on that, because, possibly, 440 RSPCA inspectors and 50 welfare officers are not enough to tackle this problem.
I repeat: this is a broken Parliament; but in a perverse way, I am glad that animals have benefited from the legislative opportunity that has arisen because it is broken. May we, in the weeks and months ahead, pass much more legislation such as this.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess). There is a rare outbreak of consensual agreement across the Benches today, which I am proud to be part of.
All of us who are speaking in the Chamber today are speaking on behalf of those who do not have a voice. We are speaking on behalf of those whom it is our human duty to protect, to feed, to care for and to love. In particular, I speak today on behalf of Baby the bulldog and of Scamp the dog and, of course, of so many other animals who have met their sad end at the hands of humans. They should have been nurtured, stroked and loved, but instead they were ultimately abused and then killed.
I am very glad finally to have the opportunity to speak to this Bill, which has, as has been said, been a long time coming. I was proud to spend the night in Parliament in July 2016, as I queued for a private Member’s Bill that was pretty much, word for word, the Bill that we have here today, and I am so pleased to see it here in paper. That Bill sought to increase the maximum sentencing for animal cruelty from six months to five years, building on a lot of work that had been done in the past, but sadly, that Bill was objected to by the Government Whips and never made it to Second Reading, and then ultimately fell with the onset of the 2017 general election. Of course, I am delighted that it is here, and I will not hold what happened against the Government. A few months later, I am delighted to say, they saw sense and announced support for the policy, and here we are today.
The change in law has been a long time coming. For too long animal abusers have been getting away with a slap on the wrist, and this Bill will finally, I hope, bring justice for the thousands of animals who have suffered at the hands of human cruelty. Like the hon. Member for Southend West, I did not come to Parliament expecting to champion animal cruelty. It was an incident of the most horrific cruelty in my constituency that caused me to understand the scale of what is happening around the country, and made me determined to make a difference and to change things. I apologise for some of the graphic details that I am about to share, but it is really important that we understand the reality of what is happening, and has happened, in the country and what has driven us to bring about this change in law today.
Baby was a small bulldog who was cruelly abused by Andrew Daniel Frankish in Redcar. Baby was held aloft by Andrew Frankish at the top of some wooden stairs before he repeatedly threw her down them, laughing as his brother filmed it. Baby was completely submissive throughout the episode, not even making a noise as she landed on the stairs, bouncing to the foot them and crashing through a baby gate to the floor. Her neck was stamped on and she was thrown to the floor with force over and over again. Her small chest was jumped on with the full body weight of one of the Frankish brothers.
One of the men said, “See if we can make it scream any more. We should throw it down the stairs by its ears,” before picking her up, throwing her against the wall, headbutting her twice and throwing her down the stairs again. Baby was tortured and beaten by those who were supposed to care for her. The whole horrible ordeal was filmed by the brothers for their entertainment, and they are heard laughing on the mobile phone. Baby should not have had to suffer that horrific abuse, but she did, and sadly was put down shortly afterwards. The evidence was found two years later on a mobile phone that happened to have been dropped on a supermarket floor; but for that, those two young men would never have been brought to justice.
We would hope that Baby would have seen justice after what she had been through, but sadly not. Despite the hard work of the police, the RSPCA and all those who gave evidence, the brothers were convicted of causing unnecessary suffering to her by subjecting her to unnecessary physical violence—an offence under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. But she was let down because the two brothers received a suspended sentence, just six months’ tagged curfew and £300 in costs. No one in this Chamber or the country can possibly feel that the justice system did its job that day.
That was when I decided to try to amend the law to ensure that sentences fit the crime in horrific cases such as this, and I was pleased to present my Animal Cruelty (Sentencing) Bill two years ago. During the progress of that Bill, another horrific incident in my constituency made the case for a change in the sentencing law even more pressing. A small dog named Scamp was found buried alive in woods near Redcar with a nail hammered into its head. The perpetrators pleaded guilty to offences under the Animal Welfare Act and were sentenced to just four months—not enough time for reflection, punishment or rehabilitation.
I thank the hon. Lady for bringing these horrendous stories to the attention of the House; they are very powerful in making the case that we all want to make. I thank her for what she is doing.
I really appreciate that sentiment; that was very decent of the right hon. Gentleman. So often these cases bubble up in the media but then disappear. If this place is for anything, it is for responding to situations such as this and acting. I am proud that we are all here today to do that.
Scamp, as I said, was found buried alive. The people of my constituency were horrified by the two cases I have mentioned. I pay tribute to their response. Vigils were held in my community for those animals. Hundreds of people came to lay flowers and candles and to send out the message, loudly and defiantly, that the perpetrators do not represent our community. They do not represent the people of Redcar, who are decent and kind and love animals. But the people are angry: they feel that the criminal justice system has let them down, as do the majority of people across our nation of animal lovers.
On researching how these crimes could have resulted in such impossibly lenient sentences, I was astonished to find that the maximum sentence for any form of animal abuse is just six months’ custody. Incredibly, that has not changed since the Protection of Animals Act 1911, which was introduced, essentially, to make it an offence to override or overload animals pulling loads on the street or in pits. The law is lagging a century behind. If we are to continue declaring ourselves to be a nation of animal lovers, this Bill is necessary to send a loud and clear message that we take animal cruelty seriously.
I join others in paying tribute to the animal welfare organisations that have supported this campaign and for their efforts—day in, day out—in saving and protecting animals and investigating crimes. Specifically, I would like to thank the RSPCA, the Dogs Trust, Battersea Dogs Home and the League Against Cruel Sports. I also thank the wider public for their contribution to the progress that the Bill represents. Colleagues across the House will have been lobbied by many of their constituents who have passionately held views on the need to protect animals and ensure that sentencing is a proportionate punishment.
I entirely endorse the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) about the powerful contribution that the hon. Lady has made. I pay tribute to her powerful track record on this issue. We are often called a nation of animal lovers. Does the hon. Lady agree that love is not enough? We also need protection. This Bill will now help to protect the animals that we all love.
The right hon. Gentleman is right. As I said in my introductory comments, as human beings we have a duty of care, love and protection towards animals who have been bred alongside us for thousands of years and that we have cared for, protected and nurtured. That is our responsibility to them. I hope that this legislation will send out the message and that anyone who cannot understand it will be dealt with severely.
I also thank my community in Redcar and Teesside who have shown their compassion and given the Bill so much support—signing petitions and responding to the terrible acts with a determination to help change the law.
I take on board everything that has been said about getting the Bill through as quickly as possible and I have no wish to slow its progress, but before I finish I want to bring an issue to the Minister’s attention, as I will throughout the Bill’s progress, to make the most of the opportunity. It concerns the trend of filming animal cruelty with the aim of sharing and uploading videos to social media. As I said, Baby’s aggressors deliberately filmed their despicable acts for entertainment. There are many examples on social media of video clips of cruelty going viral—people kicking cats or tormenting small animals. The perpetrators are not content simply with inflicting injury on animals; they are motivated by the prospect of the films going viral, getting hits and being shared. That is grotesque and demonstrates a greater level of malicious intent, which possibly requires a specific deterrent. I urge the Government to consider the possibility of an aggravated sentence for those who film themselves undertaking such acts. I will table an amendment in Committee and ask the Government to support it.
Finally, I want to say a word about Baby and Scamp, because it is in their names that I sought to change the law. We will probably never know the full level of cruelty and torture that those silent and defenceless animals endured. We can only begin to imagine the pain experienced and the fear that they felt. We cannot undo the suffering caused to them, but we can show each other that such cruelty has no place in our communities, and that such depraved behaviour will face the punishment that it deserves. I wholeheartedly welcome this Bill—Baby’s Bill—and I thank the Minister for bringing it forward. I look forward to voting it through, to put right the injustice and send a message that our society will not tolerate cruelty to our best friends.
It is a great honour to follow the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley), whose stories of Baby and Scamp were very moving. They do not have a voice—we are their voice, and we must shout as loud as we can. I am grateful to be appearing in my first sequel—“Finn’s law: the sequel”. I will not take up too much of the House’s time this afternoon.
To put my position simply, I am in favour of this Bill and the changes that it will introduce, as are my constituents in Clacton, many of whom keep animals and have contacted me to ask that I support the Bill. I am pleased to do exactly that today, because an increase to the paltry maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment for animal welfare offences, some of which we have heard about today, is so long overdue. As the Dogs Trust put it, the current sentences are woefully inadequate and far too low to deter offenders. I agree with that depressing conclusion and know that this Bill will go some way to correcting the shortcomings in the current legislation.
Moreover, as has been mentioned, the Bill will bring us into line with the legislation in other countries and parts of the United Kingdom and restore parity to the law, which, curiously, currently affords some animals stronger protections through higher sentences for abuse.
Perhaps most crucially, the Bill will shift punishment away from fines and on to serious prison sentences. That is an important change, as the courts may not currently impose large fines unless the offender can repay them in a reasonable time. That leaves us with too many abusers evading proper justice through short custodial sentences or paltry fines. To my mind, that is not an effective deterrent and I believe that that is why cases of abuse remain stubbornly high; the RSPCA investigated nearly 140,000 cruelty complaints last year, with 1,678 convictions.
As a keen advocate of animal welfare, I have heard too many harrowing stories of animal abuse. I have some first-hand experience of the aftermath: I went out on patrol with our dedicated local RSPCA officer Sam Garvey. We came across an animal close to death—not because of deliberate cruelty, but due to ignorance and neglect. That is another issue that we must pick up and run with, to make sure people know what is happening. The Bill will go some way towards bringing that into focus.
Many years ago, as I have mentioned here before, I took part in breaking up a puppy farming ring in Wales, where I saw dogs and puppies kept in the most appalling conditions. However, it was like a game of whack-a-mole: once we had broken one up, another came up straight away. I know too much about animal abuse in this country—for me, any case of abuse is one too many. I will do all I can to stop this cruelty from occurring. I am the owner of three wonderful, extremely noisy dogs, so this is a personal issue for me. I promise my dogs, when I get them, “I am going to give you the best life possible—I will look after you, and when that moment comes when I have to be firm, I will also do that too, and give you as good an end as possible.”
This Bill will introduce a strong deterrent. We are a nation of animal lovers, and we want to see the punishment fit the crime. The Bill will also, as the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) mentioned, give judges the option of a higher custodial penalty, which they have been asking for for some time. I am therefore grateful to the Government for bringing forward this Bill, which is another example of our positive record on animal welfare, having already secured key changes such as the ban on third-party puppy and kitten sales, the prohibition of wild animals in circuses, CCTV in slaughterhouses, and the new—rather complicated —regulations that came into force last October to protect animal welfare.
However, while I truly celebrate our past achievements, I still want us to go further and cement our status as a global leader in animal welfare by continuing to raise the bar. We can do that only by relentlessly moving forward on animal welfare. That needs to include a ban on live animal exports when we leave the EU, a proper recognition of animal sentience when we leave the EU, and better labelling of meat products to de-incentivise the overproduction of religiously slaughtered meat that is then brought inadvertently on to the mainstream market. We must also do all we can to stop the unbelievable cruelty to cats and dogs around the world by setting an example in introducing a ban on consumption of their meat here in the UK. Certainly, those are conversations for another day—perhaps when considering a comprehensive animal welfare Bill, which I look forward to seeing in this place soon.
However, there are also ways in which we can maintain the positive trend of animal welfare developments that we have seen under this Government. This Bill is another positive example, which is why I will vote for it today and hope that it makes speedy progress through Parliament. In doing so, though, I would like to raise a concern brought to my attention by the Dogs Trust, which set out—this has been touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish)—that although the increased penalties are welcome, they will inevitably see some cases taken to the High Court, with potentially lengthy proceedings to follow. That means that dogs seized during proceedings will spend protracted time in kennels while the cases goes through the courts. This has a potential impact on the dogs’ and cats’ welfare, and that seems to be counterproductive to the intention of this Bill. There are also capacity and cost issues involved in keeping a large number of dogs for such a long period. I assume that there will be a similar impact on other seized animals. Given that I have not yet been able to see an impact assessment for this Bill—I do not know whether one is planned—I do not yet know whether this has been considered by the Government. I therefore ask the Minister to say something about it in his closing remarks, or to me later, if possible.
I very much look forward to having the pleasure of voting for a piece of legislation that will do more to protect animals in the UK from abuse. As I have said many times before, it is a great honour to represent the constituents of the Clacton. My mailbag is full of animal welfare concerns, and I know that today I am speaking for my constituents. For me personally, when I leave this place—in the hopefully very distant future— I will look back on debates and votes like this with pride at the positive action I was a part of taking, as Paul O’Grady so famously says, for the love of dogs.
I start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Anna Turley). I am not very good at doing the more emotional stuff—perhaps it is the former lawyer in me—but I must admit that when she was talking about what had happened to Baby the bulldog, I found that very difficult to listen to; I think we all did. That is particularly because when I was growing up our family had a bulldog called Buster, who was a very fine dog, much loved and spoilt by all of us. The idea that somebody could treat a bulldog, or indeed any living creature, in that way, film themselves doing it and relish that experience, is terrible. As my hon. Friend said, it was purely by chance that the perpetrators were ever apprehended and prosecuted. I was going to say “brought to justice”, but I think we can all agree that they were not really brought to justice given the lenient sentence that the courts were forced to impose.
I very much welcome the fact that this Bill is being brought forward today. As we have heard, it has taken far too long. My hon. Friend brought forward her private Member’s Bill in 2017. We have not had an adequate explanation as to why the Government objected to that legislation. We then had pre-legislative scrutiny on the EFRA Committee. It was clearly not the sort of legislation that had to go through pre-legislative scrutiny—it was a very simple Bill. The argument now being used is that, because it has taken so long and we are about to adjourn for the summer recess, it is important that this Bill goes through with very little scrutiny and without any amendments—that it should just be raced through.
If there has been a delay, that is the Government’s fault. That cannot be used as a reason not to try to explore some broader issues, particularly my hon. Friend’s suggestion that we should look at introducing a more severe penalty for those who have filmed themselves indulging in such cruelty, which betrays the particular mindset of the individuals involved. I hope that we can have a fully fleshed out discussion in Committee of the issues involved, but I am very keen to see this Bill on the statute book as soon as possible.
Possibly one of the reasons why the Bill went to pre-legislative scrutiny in the EFRA Committee is that it was at the time paired with the sentience issue. Again, that was a very short Bill; there was one paragraph on sentience. As my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) said, I have introduced a ten-minute rule Bill on sentience. When the Minister appeared in front of the Select Committee, he said that the Government were looking for a suitable vehicle to bring the sentience proposal forward. As the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) said, there has been so much time in which we could have done so. Yesterday, when I went into the Division Lobby to vote, I found myself not quite remembering what to do, because it had been so long since I had done it. I stood there looking at the Division Clerk and thought, “Oh yes, I am meant to give them my name!”
We have not been dealing with legislation and voting. Most of this type of legislative stuff could be dealt with in one day, yet the Government have almost had to be dragged kicking and screaming to bring forward measures such those on as wild animals in circuses, which took eight years to get to this place and is pretty much uncontroversial, as is this Bill. I do not see why that took so long. Finn’s law is great, but that process went on for quite a long time, as did the legislation on third-party puppy sales and CCTV in slaughterhouses. If we did nothing else but simple animal welfare measures, as the hon. Member for Southend West said, we could come up with a whole list of them to keep us occupied while we were waiting for the Brexit impasse to be resolved. To buy off a rebellion on the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, this House was promised in late November or early December 2017 that sentience would be legislated for before we left the EU. If the amendment in question had been pushed to the vote, I think the Government would have been in serious difficulties. They are therefore under a moral responsibility to bring forward this legislation as soon as possible.
The debate so far has been mostly about dogs and domestic animals; there has not been much discussion of farm animals. I get quite impatient when I hear it so often stated that we are a nation of animal lovers. That seems to show a degree of complacency and self-congratulation, because there have been absolutely horrific exposés by undercover investigations of what is going on, even in high-welfare farms. For example, Animal Equality brought a case to court fairly recently after it had gone undercover and filmed workers at Fir Tree farm in Lincolnshire kicking pigs in the face, jabbing them with pitchforks and slamming gates on their heads. At the beginning of this year, they received an eight-week suspended sentence and 100 hours’ community service. There does seem to be a bit of disconnect. Pigs are very intelligent animals. I can see why people perhaps feel more empathetic about cruelty to pets because there is a direct relationship, but if people are going to eat meat, we have a duty to respect the animals in the food chain. Those people should certainly have had much longer sentences, and it should not have been left to an organisation such as Animal Equality to do undercover investigations to reveal the case.
Animal Equality has also just revealed footage from a chicken farm that supplies Nando’s, Lidl and Asda—it is very much part of our mainstream food chain. The chickens were kicked and abused on the farm. They were stepped on, which broke their necks. Again, this was a red tractor farm. Whenever those responsible for the red tractor scheme are put on the spot, they say that it is a one-off, and the reason why animal welfare groups such as Viva! or Animal Equality went into those farms is that rumours had been heard about them, and these are the rogue guys; they are not indicative of what is happening across the piece. However, if we look at what Viva! discovered about the way that pigs were being treated on Hogwood farm, it seems that this is just the tip of the iceberg. If these are the higher welfare farms, what is going on at the farms that do not have a red tractor mark? We need to do far more to investigate standards on our farms and in slaughterhouses. I know that there is now CCTV in slaughterhouses, but there have been horrific stories.
I am keen for the Bill to go forward, and I do not want to delay it, but there is scope to look at some amendments. The Minister has said that there might be a larger piece of animal welfare legislation, or it might be tied into the environment Bill or the agriculture Bill—I have heard lots of different rumours about what might be coming forward. I urge him to look at issues such as live exports. I do not understand why a ban would only be on live exports for slaughter and not fattening. I do not see the difference, because the cruelty is in the journey that the animals have to take.
We need to look at vivisection. The number of animal experiments continues to rise. I am not opposed to genuine scientific advances or genetic research, but so many of these experiments are totally unnecessary. If we leave the EU and its chemicals testing regime, we could find that we are doing far more duplicate animal experiments, and we need to be more serious about reducing those numbers.
The final point that I want to make is about shooting. We heard recently, as a result of inquiries that I made with the League Against Cruel Sports, that 27 million game birds are being imported into the UK to be shot for so-called sport each year. They are raised on factory farms in France, Spain, Portugal and Poland with standards that we would not accept. Regardless of what we think about shooting birds for sport, we should be challenging the likes of Eurotunnel for bringing in so many of these birds to facilitate a very cruel pastime. We certainly ought to be looking at the conditions in which the animals are transported. If we are going to have a shooting industry, I do not see why we cannot insist that either the birds are raised in this country or eggs are imported, rather than live animals.
There is a lot more to do. I welcome the Bill, and I am hoping to serve on the Bill Committee. I hope that we can get it passed into law before too long. Once the Minister has got this out the way, there are many other things on his to-do list to turn to.
I would like to join the Minister in thanking all the Members who have brought us to this point over the years—13 years, according to the hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin). I would like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) in particular, as well as the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who have pushed this forward over the last two years. It is good to see something that was promised to us two years ago finally come to the House.
My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) made a point about what the maximum sentence would apply to. It is worth saying that the Bill is not about inadvertent mistreatment; it is about serious and deliberate cruelty. Several Members have made the point that deliberate cruelty to animals is an indicator of likely cruelty to humans, and especially domestic violence.
I agree with the hon. Member for North Herefordshire that eventually, it will be possible to save money if the number of prosecutions reduces. To achieve that, we need to create the expectation among people who are thinking of being cruel to animals that they will be prosecuted and, in extreme cases, face heavy sentences, which means we must ensure that the Bill is put into place properly and properly policed. If we can deter this sort of cruelty, it will help to deter domestic violence. Any law-abiding society that applies the law properly saves money. Even if it does not save money in the short term, due to imprisonment or court costs, it will save money in the long term through encouraging and forcing people to abide by the law. We should not be counting the cost when it comes to abiding by the law; we should be ensuring that we are a law-abiding society.
Much of the cruelty that takes place is part of serious criminal activity. We are not just talking about lone criminal acts. In some cases, we are talking about international dog-fighting rings, with serious money involved. To clamp down on these rings, we need serious sentences. Dog fighting is a good example of where I part company with the hon. Member for North Herefordshire. It is not a human being hurting a dog—it is a dog hurting a dog—but what happens to animals in most cruelty cases is a direct result of the attitude of the human beings who are responsible for those animals. We cannot say that we will not prosecute a case simply because another animal has created that violent situation. If a human being is meant to be responsible for that animal, they need to be responsible for what that animal is doing. I look forward to dog fighting becoming as much a part of the past as cock fighting and bear baiting.
There are serious issues about which animals should be covered by this legislation. The Opposition are not necessarily convinced that every animal that needs to be covered will be covered. Wild animals and farmed animals have been mentioned. Several campaigning organisations have contacted us—I am sure they have contacted other Members—to suggest all sorts of areas where the Bill could be improved. At some stage, we will need a comprehensive and effective animal welfare Bill, as the hon. Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) said. I believe that a Labour animal welfare Bill will probably be more comprehensive and effective, but that is something for the future.
We do not want to allow our wish to improve the Bill to get in the way of passing it. We will put forward things that we think might improve it, but the most important thing is that we get a quick resolution of this specific issue and pass the Bill. I am proud and delighted to join my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) in commending the Bill to the House.
I would like to thank the Members who have made valuable contributions to this important debate. As has been explained, one of the key purposes of the Bill is to ensure that there is a deterrent to animal cruelty by extending the maximum sentence possible. The many examples that have been given, particularly by the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley), will reverberate among those for whom the welfare of animals is close to their heart. I am on to my fourth rescue dog, and it is noticeable that when a dog’s history is not known, they often flinch when they see people of a certain character, which perhaps reflects the horrendous experience they have been through. They often require a lot of extra training and support to recover from that.
I genuinely hope that this legislation, which has good support, will make quick progress under the stewardship of the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley). I should point out that the Bill is just one element of the action that the Government intend to take to improve animal welfare. There have been a number of pieces of legislation, and I hope they will soon be joined by this Bill and the Wild Animals in Circuses (No.2) Bill, which is progressing well through the other place.
I now turn to the points made by individual Members. The hon. Member for West Bromwich West (Mr Bailey) mentioned feral cats. It is important to state that the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which this Bill is modifying, covers protected animals. In its legal definition, a protected animal is a vertebrate animal of a kind commonly domesticated in the British Isles. This Bill ensures that stray dogs and feral cats will be covered.
Several Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) and my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), have referred to the issues of horse tethering. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 and these new maximum penalties will absolutely apply to horse tethering where that leads to unnecessary suffering. Horse tethering is fully covered in the equine welfare code made under the 2006 Act, which gives clear guidance on appropriate tethering. Anyone not tethering in line with the statutory code risks prosecution under the Act. My hon. Friend the Minister recently hosted a roundtable with local authorities and welfare bodies, and he agreed to share best practice on enforcement on this very specific issue.
The hon. Members for Workington (Sue Hayman) and for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) both mentioned wildlife, as did the hon. Member for Bristol West. The House will be aware that this Bill is specifically about amending the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Other legislation does apply to wildlife, with different levels of penalties that can be imposed, including unlimited fines. However, I am conscious, as they are, that the commitment was specifically made to amend this Act. Who knows whether there will be opportunities for further legislation in a new Session of Parliament, if—dare I say it?—we are ever allowed to prorogue so that we can move on to the next Queen’s Speech. That is a matter for debate on another day.
It is important, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald) said, that we consider Finn’s law part two, or the sequel, but this Bill does actually provide good strengthening. He referred to other parts of the United Kingdom, but it is important to say that this is a devolved matter and the Government take that seriously. I want to commend him and others for their national campaign and what they have been doing to take the case to other parts of the United Kingdom. As the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) said, Northern Ireland is already at that stage, and we will be joining it.
The hon. Lady mentioned the Lord Chancellor’s proposals about custodial sentences. My right hon. Friend is considering the issues relating to more minor, short-term custodial sentences. He is on record as saying that there is a very strong case to abolish sentences of six months or less altogether, with some closely defined exceptions, but any such proposals do not affect this Bill, which is about increasing the maximum available penalty for animal cruelty to five years. It may apply to the more minor offences under the Animal Welfare Act, but those offences, such as in section 9, do not generally attract a custodial sentence now, and an unlimited fine will continue to apply.
We also have the issue of the sentencing guidelines. The Government have already been in contact with the independent Sentencing Council about the change to the maximum penalty, which we hope Parliament will introduce shortly. There is already an existing sentencing guideline in relation to animal cruelty offences under the Act. It was reviewed and updated by the Sentencing Council as recently as 2017. However, I am pleased to say that the council has confirmed that, once the Bill is passed, it will consider the need to revise the guidelines and any revision would involve a public consultation.
I am grateful to the Minister for the clarification she has given, but let me be clear that, in my speech, I was absolutely defending the need for this Bill in the context of the potential change in the law in relation to six-month sentences, which I think strengthens the need for this legislation. That is all I will say.
I entirely agree with the hon. Lady’s point, which is why I am sure the House welcomes what she has said and also the progress on the Bill.
The hon. Member for Redcar referred to filming and to making this an aggravating factor. I think this is a very useful point, and we will certainly raise it with the independent Sentencing Council. As I have said, it has already indicated that it will consider and revise the guidelines once this Bill has become legislation.
One of the things my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West mentioned was the enforcement of this. Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, it is for local authorities, the Animal and Plant Health Agency and indeed the police, which all have powers of entry, to inspect complaints of suspected animal cruelty and take out prosecutions, where necessary. It is for local authorities to make decisions about what they consider to be local priorities, rather than for the Government to decide. However, it is important that local authorities have the opportunity, as they do now, to continue to work in close partnership with others. We know that the RSPCA does investigate allegations of cruelty. It has successfully prosecuted between 800 and 1,000 people on average every year, and in doing that, it does a very valuable job.
My hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) mentioned the impact of animals being held in kennels. I think it is fair to say that we do not necessarily expect a large number of cases to come before the Crown court, where the issue about the length of time may arise. At present, we estimate that about 25 cases that would previously have been held in the magistrates courts may well now be held in the Crown court. However, we consider that only a very small number of animals may need to be held in kennels for an extended period.
We cannot say from the Dispatch Box today precisely what decisions will be made about which animals would need to be taken away from the owner while somebody is awaiting sentencing, and such an action would not necessarily follow. However, it is also important to state that the Animal Welfare Act has provisions that allow a court to disqualify anyone from having animals, if necessary for life, if they have been convicted of an offence.
The court can also issue orders under section 3(6)(b) of the Bail Act 1976 to prevent the commission of further offences while on bail. The courts can make the sale of existing animals, and indeed a prohibition on owning animals, a condition of a defendant’s bail. It is important to stress that courts already have the power not only to prevent people on trial for animal welfare offences from acquiring new animals, but to remove the animals they already have. I do not believe we need further legislation to bring that about.
On what was said by the hon. Member for Bristol West, this legislation does apply to farmed animals. It is about animals that are under the care and protection of humans. I am pleased that she recognises the things we have done on animal welfare.
I appreciate that the hon. Lady wants to intervene, but if she will allow me to say a few more things—
Will the Minister give way on a point of clarification?
I am going to try to answer the points the hon. Lady made, and I have said that I would then give way.
We have made CCTV mandatory in slaughterhouses in England, as she has pointed out. As she is aware, we are considering carefully the export of live animals. The Farm Animal Welfare Committee has recently submitted its advice on the welfare of animals in transport, which includes advice on controlling live exports—not only to the Government, but to the devolved Administrations. We are considering that carefully, and we aim to publish it with a Government response in due course.
All I wanted to say was that the Minister has twice referred to me as the Member for Bristol West, and I am the Member for Bristol East. I would have thought she would know that by now, because we do tend to go head-to-head rather a lot.
I do apologise. The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) was not here at the start of the debate, and I thought my hon. Friend the Minister had referred to her as the Member for Bristol West, but I do apologise.
On the other issues that have been raised, I was pleased to hear from the Members who made contributions today. A number of interventions were made by my hon. Friends the Members for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) and for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), and my right hon. Friends the Members for Wokingham (John Redwood) and for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), as well as by the SNP spokesperson on these matters, the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron). It is important that we continue to make good progress in Committee, so that we can bring this Bill swiftly back to the House and it can make its way to the other place. With that, I commend this Bill. The Bill represents the fact that we are a nation of animal lovers, and it certainly reinforces that.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill (Programme)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill:
(1) The Bill shall be committed to a Public Bill Committee.
Proceedings in Public Bill Committee
(2) Proceedings in the Public Bill Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on Thursday 25 July 2019.
(3) The Public Bill Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it meets.
Proceedings on Consideration and up to and including Third Reading
(4) Proceedings on Consideration and any proceedings in legislative grand committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which proceedings on Consideration are commenced.
(5) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.
(6) Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings on Consideration and up to and including Third Reading.
(7) Any other proceedings on the Bill may be programmed.—(Mike Freer.)
Question agreed to.