To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to increase the current penalties, including custodial sentences, for animal welfare offences in England to bring them into line with the European average.
My Lords, on 30 September the Secretary of State announced that the Government will increase the maximum penalty for animal cruelty from the current six months’ imprisonment to five years’ imprisonment. My understanding is that the European average is 2.04 years’ imprisonment.
I am particularly encouraged by that response, but we should put it in context. Germany three, Ireland five, Latvia five, Finland four, Spain three and Northern Ireland five—those are not the football scores but the number of years that people would spend in prison if convicted of animal welfare offences. As the Minister said, we have six—a shameful six months, not years. Could the Minister explain why we have been out of line for so long with our European neighbours, with public opinion and with the wishes of the Select Committee, which recommended five years? However, I am particularly encouraged that there is a process in place to make those changes and would be interested to understand the timeframe in which we will see these changes being put into practice.
My Lords, I said what the European average is. Before the Bill is brought forward, there will be a draft Bill which I very much hope we will publish later this year—not very long—so that we can get this done as soon as parliamentary business permits.
My Lords, as one who is very concerned about overcrowding in prisons, I urge my noble friend to extend custodial sentences only to the most serious offences and, whenever possible, to use non-custodial alternatives.
My Lords, I understand that and indeed we considered it, but we think that for the most heinous crimes we should increase the sentence from six months. It would be helpful if your Lordships knew that currently an average of three people per year have been sentenced to the maximum, which gives an indication of the numbers involved.
My Lords, if Brexit happens, will the Government ensure that it remains a criminal offence to import animals or birds captured in the wild? Before the EU brought in a ban, the UK was a ready market for people who pillaged other people’s jungles and wild places.
My Lords, it is very important that we are understanding of the importance of not importing animals and birds that we should not. Indeed, we want not only to maintain what is going to come back from European law but in many cases to advance it.
My Lords, I welcome the strengthening of the sanctions for animal welfare offences. More than that, though, there is an increasing realisation that people who abuse animals frequently abuse, or go on to abuse, human beings. I pay tribute to the Links Group for drawing attention to that relationship. Given that, does the Minister agree that not only will strengthening the sanctions reduce the abuse of animals but it may also help to protect vulnerable people from abuse?
My Lords, whether it is abuse against animals or against human beings, we must do all that we can to reduce the scope for it. With this proposal, we are sending the very strong message that for heinous crimes there will be, among other things, the sanction of a custodial sentence of five years.
My Lords, I welcome the increased sentences for the most heinous cruelty to animals but, given what my noble friend Lord Hailsham said, should we not also be banning these people from keeping animals for life or, if not for life, then for a very long time?
My Lords, it is the case that in addition to imprisonment we can impose through the courts an unlimited fine. My noble friend is right: one of the ways to protect animals is the disqualification route, and indeed that can be for life. It is very important that that includes having any influence over the way that an animal is kept, and obviously that could include an animal that belonged to another family member. The most important aspect of our sanctions is to reduce the scope for cruelty and to root it out.
My Lords, we very much welcome the Secretary of State’s recent announcement of an increase in maximum sentences, as the Minister has described, but does he accept that the law is only as good as the people who will need to enforce it? For instance, the Dogs Trust has repeatedly highlighted the scandal of puppy smuggling into the UK. It is done not by individuals but by organised gangs which, as we know, frequently keep underage puppies in appalling conditions. Does he accept that more police and border control resources are needed to stop this cruel practice, otherwise the law becomes meaningless?
My Lords, what the noble Baroness has said is absolutely on the dot: we need to drive down on the illegal smuggling of puppies. That is why I endorse what the Dogs Trust has done in working with Kent County Council, Border Force and the transport companies. We absolutely want to rout out the illegal smuggling of puppies. That is one of the reasons why it is so important that we invite people who wish to have pets to consider rehoming and make sure that, if they want to buy a puppy, they see it interacting with its mother—look to those sources and do not go for puppies that very often arrive in this country ill.
My Lords, will the Minister tell us whether there are going to be CCTV cameras in slaughterhouses to help prevent cruelty?
My Lords, as the noble Baroness has suggested, we have just closed our consultation on the mandatory nature of CCTV in all slaughterhouses. We think that this is important: we have been consulting with industry and stakeholders because we think that this is necessary. We will bring forward secondary legislation on this matter before Parliament early next year.
My Lords, in response to a Question that I asked on 1 March this year, the Minister told me that legislation to prevent wild animals being used in circuses was going to be brought forward by this Government. Seven months later, however, there is still no legislation, despite there being cross-party support for it and huge public support. Will the Minister tell us when this legislation is going to come through? Last time, the Minister was kind enough to give me a list of the animals that are still in circuses, which included a racoon, so there is no need to repeat that.
I do have a list of 19 animals, but I will not enumerate them. Clearly, we have a desire to prohibit the use of wild animals in circuses. I am not in a position to say when parliamentary time will permit, but we wish to do this. That is why, in the meantime, the regulations we have for the two travelling circuses to look after the care of the 19 animals is so important.
My Lords, in the light of the Brexit debates on agriculture and other matters, can the Minister assure us that Her Majesty’s Government will ensure that in future, after Brexit, the regulations requiring very high standards of care for animals that are being bred and transported in this country, will continue to be applied to animals that are brought in from other countries with lower standards?
My Lords, I think that my Secretary of State has made it very clear that we wish to enhance animal welfare standards. That means precisely that we do not wish to see produce or animals coming into this country that are not looked after to the same standards that we would expect from our own farmers and producers.