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Animal Welfare and Wildlife Crime Offences

Volume 809: debated on Tuesday 12 January 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to improve enforcement rates for (1) animal welfare, and (2) wildlife crime, offences.

My Lords, the Government recognise the importance of tackling wildlife crime and animal cruelty. Since 2016, Defra and the Home Office have jointly committed £300,000 a year to funding the National Wildlife Crime Unit. We have also ensured that legislation contains the necessary powers for enforcement agencies to investigate any possible offences and bring offenders to justice. The enforcement of wildlife and animal welfare laws are operational matters for the police and local authorities.

The Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill is important legislation with cross-party support, but it appears to be stuck. Is there a date for Committee stage and, if not, why not? On breaking the Hunting Act, particularly in light of the Hunting Office webinars now being investigated, does the Minister accept that enforcement will remain difficult until action is taken to strengthen the law and stop trail hunting being used as a cover for illegal hunting?

The Government support increasing the maximum custodial sentence for animal cruelty offences from six months to five years. We have always been clear about that. It will enable courts to take a much firmer approach to cases such as dog fighting, abuse of puppies and kittens, gross neglect of farm animals and so on. The Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill, which the noble Baroness mentions, was introduced into the House of Commons by Chris Loder MP and completed Second Reading on 23 October. We are currently awaiting a date for Committee. The Government have been clear that we will continue to support it as it makes its way through Parliament. We are committed to ensuring that it becomes law.

The offences that the noble Baroness cited are already offences under the Hunting Act; they are already illegal, so the issue is one of enforcement. She is right to raise them, as some troubling exposés have been made available to us but, again, crimes have been committed and it is down to the authorities to ensure that those responsible face the full force of the law.

My Lords, what steps are the Government taking to encourage the enforcement of international law in relation to wild animals? Is the Minister aware that a species called the pangolin, fully protected in theory, is being hunted in great numbers, according to that excellent organisation, the Born Free Foundation?

In 2018, the UK hosted the biggest ever illegal wildlife trade conference, and 65 countries signed up to the London declaration, which committed them to accelerating efforts to stop this vile trade. We are expanding the UK’s Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund, which has committed over £26 million to 85 projects around the world since it was launched. That includes support for the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s novel system to detect the pangolins the noble Baroness mentions in shipping containers, by using African giant pouched rats at ports in Tanzania. The UK has supported greater protections for pangolins at the CITES Conference of the Parties, which now means that all international trade in pangolins, or their parts, is prohibited. We will continue to do all we can.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a licence holder who is able to inject animals but not currently able to inject humans with the vaccine. The Covid pandemic has led to a substantial unmet need for more animal research, including on genetically modified mice. We all breathed a sigh of relief with the rapid development of vaccines, which would not have been possible without animal research. This virus affects many different organs, and there is still no substitute for animal models, which we scientists agree must be used ethically and as humanely as possible. Can the Minister reassure the House that he agrees that such research is essential for ensuring animal health and welfare, and the prevention of many human deaths?

Animal experimentation clearly has an enormously important role to play. It needs to be science-led, and there needs to be a clear understanding that the results of such research are applicable and useful in the context of human health and medicine. Broadly speaking, the Government’s view is that animal experimentation should be minimised to that absolutely necessary in pursuit of human health.

Does the Home Office plan to make wildlife crime a recordable offence, so that proper statistics can be collected, as what is measured shows what matters?

Recordable offences are set outside Defra, although Defra has been working with, for example, the Raptor Persecution Priority Delivery Group, led by police forces across England and Wales. Our view is that strong penalties are already in place for offences committed against birds of prey and other wildlife, with significant sanctions available to the courts to hand down to those convicted. Most wildlife crimes carry the risk of an unlimited fine and/or a six-month custodial sentence. However, senior government and enforcement officers have identified raptor persecution as a national wildlife crime priority, which means that greater resources will be devoted to clamping down on what we believe has been an increasing crime during the Covid period.

My Lords, in supporting my noble friend Lady Hayman of Ullock’s concern to improve enforcement rates, may I say that, as a young man, I occasionally prosecuted gamekeepers and poachers, on behalf of the RSPB, for wildlife crime offences? Will the Attorney-General review the boundaries between private prosecutions and CPS prosecutions to ensure that wrongdoing does not fall between the cracks?

The noble Lord makes an important point and I will convey it to the Attorney-General, on whose behalf I am afraid I am not able to speak. There are now over 500 wildlife crime officers, covering most police forces in England and Wales, and they are specially trained to conduct and support investigations into wildlife crimes. Defra has been supporting work led by the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the Home Office to explore widening the range of notifiable wildlife offences in respect of this question and the previous one. The benefit of doing so is that there is a national standard for the recording and counting of these offences by police forces in England and Wales.

My Lords, one of the many good things to come out of Brexit is our ability to stop the export of live animals for slaughter. I do not expect this practice to have been stopped already, but I trust that it will be as soon as possible. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us what progress has been made to date and when we can expect to see a total ban in place.

This was a manifesto commitment and we have taken a key step in delivering it by launching, just a few weeks ago, a consultation on ending live animal exports for slaughtering and fattening, as well as further improvements to animal welfare in transport. That consultation closes on 28 January. The Secretary of State has made clear that we want to end live animal exports for slaughtering and fattening by the end of this year. We are currently considering the best legislative vehicles through which to deliver that.

My Lords, I very much welcome the decision to have the consultation on the banning of live exports of animals, but I understand that this will not apply to Northern Ireland. Will the Minister do all that he can, as someone who genuinely cares about animal welfare, to get the protocol changed to allow this much-needed consultation to happen in Northern Ireland as well? Or do the Government think that animals in Northern Ireland do not deserve the same welfare treatment as animals in the rest of the United Kingdom?

The noble Baroness makes an important point. As she says, Northern Ireland will continue to follow EU legislation on animal welfare and transport for as long as the Northern Ireland protocol is in place. But I very much take her point and I will convey it to colleagues in government.

My Lords, during the pandemic, more people are buying puppies, many of which are not bred according to our strict animal welfare standards, but are imported illegally, and separated from their mothers too early. As the price of a puppy has risen exponentially, with well over £3,000 being quoted, people are also finding that their beloved pet dogs are being stolen to order. Can the Minister say what the Government are doing to enforce the law on the sale of puppies and to discourage dog theft?

The Government introduced a ban on the commercial third-party sale of puppies and kittens in England, and ahead of that we launched a big national communications campaign strategy called Petfished, which was designed to help people make more informed choices when sourcing a new pet. These are important steps, taken to disrupt the low-welfare trade that supports unscrupulous puppy farming and to tackle the illegal supply of pets. There are already laws in place in relation to pet theft, and it is the view of the Government that the maximum penalties available are sufficient. However, I know that colleagues in government are looking at what changes could be made to sentencing guidelines to reflect the fact that a puppy being stolen is not the same as an inanimate object being stolen. I hope that progress will be made shortly.