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Animal Torture: Online Videos

Volume 831: debated on Tuesday 27 June 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of (1) the availability of animal torture videos on the internet, and (2) whether existing legislation is sufficient to punish people in the United Kingdom who are involved in the creation or promotion of such content.

We are aware of the prevalence of appalling animal cruelty videos online and take this issue very seriously. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 is commonly used to tackle domestic animal cruelty and it is an offence under the Communications Act 2003, which can be used to address offensive material being circulated online, be it from the UK or not.

My Lords, the recent reports about the global network to encourage and film the torture of baby monkeys for profit were harrowing. Internet users wanted to see animals hurt with pliers and hammers and set on fire, and then they were paying to watch the results. My noble friend Lord Stevenson’s amendment to the Online Safety Bill sought to add such severe animal cruelty to the list of priority offences, but it was rejected by the Government. I have read the Hansard, and it seems to me it was rejected because it was too difficult. Does the Minister agree that if an offence is illegal offline, it should be illegal online? If the Government are not prepared to include this in that Bill, will he commit to work with Defra to bring in the necessary animal welfare legislation?

The debate on this matter in Committee on the Online Safety Bill was well attended and certainly well received. The purpose of the Online Safety Bill is to intervene between the platforms on which the distressing images are published and the users who see those platforms. It is, first, for human beings and, secondly, for their experiences online. The appalling instances that the noble Baroness referenced, particularly in the BBC documentary, would themselves be covered by either the Animal Welfare Act or the Communications Act, both of which make those criminal offences without the need for recourse to the Online Safety Bill.

My Lords, these offences are bad enough by themselves, but does the Minister accept that there is a direct connection between animal cruelty and violence towards humans? If so, is this not yet another reason why the Government should use the Online Safety Bill to combat animal cruelty offences and make this a priority offence under the Bill?

I join the whole House in absolutely deploring these behaviours. The concern about adding animal cruelty offences to the Online Safety Bill is that it is a Bill built around the experiences online of human beings. To rearchitect the Bill around actions perpetrated or commissioned on animals runs the risk of diminishing the effectiveness of the Bill.

My Lords, needless to say, the behaviour referred to in this Question shows indescribable cruelty to animals. It is extremely concerning that anybody should do these things or, indeed, want to view them. It urgently emphasises the need for better regulation of the internet to reduce the danger of copying behaviour. Is the Minister aware—I fear that the noble Lord has just made him aware—of the increasing evidence that malicious cruelty to animals is a precursor, and can lead, to violent and abusive behaviour towards humans? Is this not another indication, were it needed, of why we need to better regulate the internet with regard to cruelty to animals?

I recognise the argument that increased cruelty to animals promotes further bad behaviour, including violence between humans, but I stress the point that the purpose of the Online Safety Bill is to bring into law a range of limitations on what can be published and what can be seen online by human beings. There are laws that effectively criminalise cruel behaviour to animals and the action of publishing evidence of cruelty to animals online; those laws just happen not to be the Online Safety Bill.

My Lords, the Minister says that the Government are against cruelty to animals, yet we have just heard that the present legislation does not stop it. Is it not the case that we need regulation that will prosecute and convict people involved in these practices? Can he tell us how many people have been prosecuted so far this year for animal cruelty?

I have the numbers prosecuted for animal cruelty in my notes somewhere; I will happily write to the noble Lord.

My Lords, at the moment the law we have been talking about has been preventing those who are perpetrating the harm and publishing it, but is there any merit in going after the people who are watching it and paying for it and have it on their computers—the consumers who ultimately are generating the harm at the end?

Indeed. I stress that laws preventing these behaviours are already in existence, and the Online Safety Bill supports those laws in some sense. If content is illegal, platforms are obliged to take it down. If content creates a risk of harm to children, again, platforms are obliged to take it down. In the case of the largest platforms, the so-called category 1 platforms, if content violates their terms of service, they are obliged to take it down.

My Lords, if the Minister’s central argument is that we do not need any amendments to the current Bill because these offences already exist, surely the response is that they are clearly not working because, from all the evidence we have heard, this cruelty is continuing. If the existing legislation simply is not working, surely the option of providing new legislation is precisely what is required.

I do not accept either that the existing legislation is not working or that, if it is not, the way to fix it is to make an amendment that redirects the Online Safety Bill in such a dramatic and fundamental way.

Does the Minister not agree that, on the basis of what has been said in the House today, there is clearly a problem? There appears to be some disagreement over exactly how that problem is to be solved, but does he agree that if there is a problem, it needs to be solved sooner rather than later?

I certainly agree that there is a problem. I am afraid that over the course of a year, the Social Media Animal Cruelty Coalition documented about 5,500 individual links to videos containing animal cruelty on the major platforms—YouTube, Facebook and TikTok—but globally the number of views of those incidents exceeded 5 billion. So I agree that there is a problem but I do not accept that the solution to it is a radical change to the Online Safety Bill, as was debated in Committee. I am open to working with my colleagues in Defra on what a more effective solution might be.

Is the Minister aware that he is very lucky that my almost namesake, the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, is not in the House today, otherwise he would be in dead trouble?

Would it be of help to my noble friend to consider that what we have heard today clearly sets out a difference between a crime of being cruel to an animal and what he proposes to bring forward in the Online Safety Bill? If in the Bill he simply added at the appropriate point—I am not familiar enough with it to know at exactly what point, but he will know—the words “and all sentient beings”, would that not include some of the animals we are talking about? It would not cover them all since there are other living creatures that would not be regarded as sentient, but certainly primates would be, and they have been mentioned today. Would that help my noble friend? Clearly there is a difference. I say this as someone who had ministerial responsibility many years ago for the welfare of farm animals. Would that not solve the problem? Could he at least explore it?

I am happy to explore all creative and inventive solutions to the very real problem of reducing not only cruelty to animals but people’s deplorable enjoyment of that cruelty.