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Animal Welfare: Penalties

Volume 778: debated on Monday 16 January 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have any plans to increase the penalties for animal welfare offences.

My Lords, while there are no current proposals to increase the maximum penalties for animal welfare offences, the Government want to see courts use the range of penalties available. We will continue to keep the maximum penalties for animal welfare offences under review.

I thank the Minister for that reply. The maximum sentence available for extreme and premeditated cruelty is six months. We lag behind the rest of mainland Europe and Northern Ireland, whose maximum sentence is five years. Given that the EFRA Select Committee has now recommended a rise to five years, is it not time that the sentence matched the crime?

My Lords, obviously I have considerable sympathy with the noble Baroness. Some of the examples of animal cruelty cases are, frankly, beyond belief, and that is why I am very pleased that the independent Sentencing Council aims to ensure that the most serious cases of animal cruelty could receive longer sentences within the maximum six months’ imprisonment. The council is currently considering the consultation responses, and will draft the definitive guideline with publication due later this year.

My Lords, while it is important that we increase sanctions for animal welfare offences, sanctions are but nothing without enforcement. At the minute, there is no statutory requirement for local authorities or the police to enforce animal welfare legislation. Have the Government any plans to introduce such a statutory requirement?

My Lords, there are no current plans, but imprisonment is not the only penalty, and I think that is important. The increase to an unlimited fine, community service orders and orders disqualifying people from ownership of dogs and animals for life are among the range of penalties, which I think are also very important if we are to address this matter.

Do the Government intend to issue updated guidance under the Animal Welfare Act to bear down more decisively on the appalling practice of puppy farming?

My Lords, on what my noble friend has said about puppy farming and indeed, other matters to do with animals, it is very important that the Animal Welfare Act is applied. It is one of the most advanced pieces of legislation in the world. It was reviewed in 2010-11 and, obviously, I and my honourable friend Sam Gyimah in the other place would consider and review anything that we felt was not addressing the situation.

My Lords, last week I joined a cross-party group of Peers and MPs who wrote to the Secretary of State calling for a total ban on ivory sales, to prevent the needless and cruel slaughter of African elephants. The recent Great Elephant Census showed a decline in their numbers of 30% over seven years. While the Government have taken some steps to ban newer ivory imports, it is clear that only a total ban can prevent that cruel trade from continuing. Will the Minister agree to take back our plea for a total ban on ivory imports to prevent elephants becoming an endangered species, which would be a great regret?

My Lords, whether it is elephants, rhinos or any animals becoming endangered, it is our generation’s responsibility to ensure that they continue to have their place in the natural world. Of course, this country has been one of the leaders on the ivory matter and, in fact, we have said that there should be a ban on ivory sales for up to 70 years—before 1947, they are deemed to be antiques. It is very important that that is part of our arrangements.

My Lords, the noble Lord has raised the issue of endangered species. Is he concerned about the paucity of the level of sentencing in cases where people are caught persecuting and killing endangered species of birds? Have the Government considered switching the responsibility from possibly the gamekeeper to the landowner?

My Lords, obviously all these matters are already subject to the law. No, there has been no consideration about moving liability to other than where it is now. We think that we have a robust law in place. Obviously, as I have said, if any issues needed to be reviewed, we would do so.

My Lords, has any relevant body actually said that it is against the increase in the penalties and, if so, on what grounds?

My Lords, it would be fair to say that most animal welfare organisations would like an increase. However, when I reflect on this, in Northern Ireland, which has been mentioned, of the 66 convictions between 2012 and 2016, only one offender received a prison sentence of more than six months, which was suspended. I have already mentioned the independent sentencing guidelines. With an average custodial sentence of 3.3 months, we are looking to see whether there are ways in which magistrates can have enhanced guidelines.

My Lords, is it not true that when one looks into the past of many of those who have been found guilty of either torturing or killing human beings, they have done exactly the same to animals, and there is a linkage?

Cruelty, whether it is to our fellow human beings or to animals is equally reprehensible. There have been such connections, and that is why I think some of the remedies other than imprisonment have been very important, including, in the community orders, things such as programmes to change behaviour, exclusion, curfew, drug treatment and mental health treatment. There are a number of ways in which we can help.

My Lords, further to the question of my noble friend Lord Trees, I was recently involved in a case of animal cruelty and was told that, while trading standards have the power to prosecute, they do not have the funds. I understand that this happens particularly with farm animals and that farmers are just advised rather than prosecuted.

My Lords, the Animal Welfare Act 2006 is very clear. Anyone who has any concerns about animal cruelty cases should, of course, report them to the local authority or the police.

My Lords, badger baiting was the most despicable crime, but does my noble friend agree that, where a list is drafted to put species such as bats or newts on to a protected basis, this should be reviewed at least every seven years? When was such a review last undertaken by the department?

My Lords, I will have to look into my noble friend’s precise question. Obviously, it is good practice that all laws should be kept under review.