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Angela Smith (Basildon): Perhaps I can assist the right hon. Gentleman. As clause 2 states:

it is clear that the welfare of the animals would be taken into consideration.

Mr. Forth: I accept that, as the hon. Lady points out, that is the stated aim, especially of clause 2. However, that provision is not sufficient; it merely states the aim. The clause goes on to refer explicitly to sale, disposal or slaughter; it would be strengthened if detailed provision was included. We are talking about aims or objectives on the one hand and, on the other, the means by which they are achieved. I am surprised that more detailed provisions were not included. However, I seek reassurance as much as anything else; I am sure that we can return to that matter.

Clause 3 also refers to "the prosecutor". Presumably, given the provision in clause 1(3), that might not be the prosecutor, but could be one of those mysterious people with whom a written agreement has been made to carry out prosecuting functions in the place of the prosecutor.

Again, I raise that issue to seek reassurance. Clause 3(1) refers to

Can only the prosecutor make that authorisation, or can a person with the written agreement of the prosecutor, under the earlier clause, make such agreement? If that were so, we should be somewhat at arm's length.

We need reassurance that the provisions are sufficiently tightly drawn as to ensure that proper people are acting appropriately in the interests of the aims of the Bill. Otherwise, there is the potential for drift, and that could be alarming.

The final question that I want to flag up at present relates to clause 4. It states:

However, it does not say by whom or from what source, it simply makes the statement. From where will reimbursement come?

Intriguingly, subsection (2) states:

That may be so, but what if it is not? That may be the hope, but does it cover all eventualities? Some legal guidance may be necessary--

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) rose--

Mr. Forth: I am just about to receive some.

Mr. Grieve: My right hon. Friend has touched on an important point, to which I may return. The Bill implies

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that conviction will automatically follow prosecution. He may want to consider what would happen if there were an acquittal.

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That point had occurred to me. Clause 4 appears to make certain assumptions that might not be fulfilled. That leads me back to my original question. If the expenses are not recovered under subsection (2), where will the money come from to fulfil the requirements under subsection (1)(a)?

Perhaps there is a straightforward and simple answer to all my questions. The Minister is looking pretty relaxed; he probably has all the answers already, in which case I am merely performing the preliminary function of softening up the issues so that he can come in and demonstrate his legendary knowledge of these matters and reassure us.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Crosby for introducing a Bill that is important, but modest in scope. As we are learning, that is the ideal formulation for a private Member's Bill. A measure thus drafted often has a better chance of success, for reasons that I am sure we all understand. Her Bill fits that category well.

However, despite that, the Bill raises important questions. Indeed, I should prefer some of its aspects to be strengthened so that it can properly fulfil its purpose, unless the hon. Lady or the Minister can reassure us. None the less, I wish the Bill a fair wind; I am confident that there is enough time today to do the job that we could not complete on 28 January.

1.14 pm

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby): I am grateful for the opportunity to provide greater explanation and justification for the Bill. The House has always had regard to the need to offer animals proper protection in law. We can rightly be proud of our history of legislating on the issue, dating back nearly 200 years. My Bill is a simple measure that aims to improve one of the longest-standing statutes that protects animal welfare. It is simple, but it is no less important for that. I hope that, during the debate, the points raised by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) will be adequately covered.

My aim is to plug a clear gap in the existing law as it relates to neglected animals. The statute in question is the Protection of Animals Act 1911, which is the measure that protects animals against cruelty or neglect. However, under the Act, only police constables have a limited power to take custody of animals pending the termination of proceedings for cruelty or neglect. As things stand, animals that are the subject of cruelty or neglect proceedings can be left to suffer while the law takes its course. I shall outline some practical examples of the appalling consequences that that can have for the animals concerned. I am sure that we all agree that that cannot be right.

My Bill aims to put right that anomaly and ensure that it is possible to act quickly when that is necessary in the interests of the animals. To put it simply, it would allow those prosecuting cases of cruelty under the 1911 Act to apply to a court for a care order to protect the animals concerned. The magistrates would be able to grant an

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order to the prosecutors allowing for the temporary care or for the disposal, sale or slaughter of the animals concerned.

That would be a considerable improvement on current arrangements. It would allow a range of bodies--I shall explain later what they are--to make applications for care of animals in distress and it would remove the current anachronistic reliance on police constables. It would also allow a court to specify what form the care should take. I shall in a moment describe the options with the welfare of animals in mind.

Let me now turn to the detail of my Bill and briefly outline the background to the clauses. Clause 1 sets out when the Bill would apply. In short, that would be once proceedings have been brought under section 1 of the 1911 Act. It also makes it clear that the Bill would apply only to animals kept for commercial purposes. It would not apply to pets, but it would cover farm, zoo and circus animals, riding schools and the like.

Clause 1 would also limit the use of the new power to make applications for care to government, local authority prosecutors and those organisations that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or the Welsh Assembly invites to join a written agreement. That would ensure that the power is used responsibly and would avoid vexatious and mischievous applications for care.

Clause 2 provides for a magistrates court to make a care order. It makes it clear that such an order must be in the interests of the animals and that the court must take into account veterinary advice in reaching its view. The clause also sets out what the court may specify in a care order--essentially, the care of the animals or their sale, disposal or slaughter. It makes it clear that, in deciding what to authorise, the court must have regard to the owner's interests in the value of the animals and the need to avoid increasing his costs. Finally, the clause makes it clear that any care order would cease to have effect if the related proceedings under the 1911 Act were themselves discontinued.

Clause 3 would provide powers of entry to a prosecutor making an application for care. It would allow him to enter premises and to mark for identification purposes the animals concerned. Once a care order had been awarded, it would also provide for him to enter premises for the purpose of carrying out that order. I should make it clear, however, that those powers would not extend to allowing entry to dwelling houses.

Clause 3 would make it an offence--currently carrying a maximum penalty of £1,000--to obstruct anyone acting under a care order or exercising the powers of entry that I have just described. It would also create a right for anyone owning or occupying such premises to seek evidence from a prosecutor of his entitlement to enter them.

Clause 4 would allow a prosecutor to recover from the owner any reasonable cost incurred in relation to a care order. It makes it clear that any surplus funds from the sale, disposal or slaughter of animals after the deduction of costs incurred are payable to the owner. Clause 4 requires the owner to provide a prosecutor with any documents--cattle passports are an obvious example--needed to allow him to execute a care order. It creates an offence punishable by a maximum fine--currently £1,000--for failure to do so. It provides the prosecutor with alternative means of securing the necessary documents. Clause 5 contains definitions and makes it clear that the Bill applies only to England and Wales.

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The Bill is straightforward and has been sought for some time by those closely involved in enforcing animal welfare legislation, including animal welfare organisations and those in MAFF's state veterinary service. Having explained the detail of my Bill, I shall give the House practical examples of how it would have helped in a range of cases.

Between December 1996 and April 1997, MAFF vets made nine visits to a farm in the north-east on which 200 sheep were found to be suffering from malnutrition and scab. The farmer failed to act on advice and, unfortunately, 53 sheep died. The farmer was eventually convicted and fined, but the plain fact is that his sheep would have been spared much suffering if those managing the case had had powers to intervene positively at an early stage.

Such cases are not all a matter of history. As I speak, MAFF vets are dealing with a case in which a significant number of sheep are suffering from various degrees of neglect. I am sorry to say that, in the absence of a measure such as the Bill, the sheep continue to suffer. There is no doubt that they would benefit from removal to the care of someone with the resources to feed and take care of them properly.

A young man in the midlands owned and kept three cows on a plot of leased land, but was not prepared to provide adequate feed for them. The local authority and MAFF gave absolute priority to the case, which was straightforward and uncontested. Nevertheless, four months elapsed before magistrates could hand down a lifetime ban on keeping cattle. During that period, the owner continued to neglect his animals although, fortunately, a charitable local farmer supplied hay and straw to relieve their suffering. Without his efforts, however, the animals would have been in dire straits.

I could go on, but I am conscious that time is limited. My point is that animals have suffered and are suffering now, and my Bill will address that. The examples that I have given were provided by MAFF experts and inevitably involve farm animals. However, my Bill does not apply only to farm animals and is not a measure aimed directly at the farming community, the vast majority of whose members care well for their animals, as we all know. The Bill applies equally to domestic and captive animals, but the key point is that it applies only to animals kept for commercial purposes.

I am conscious that such a measure needs to be properly framed to protect the rights of animal owners. I believe that the Bill is, and several filters are built into it to protect owners' legitimate rights. First, it reduces the scope for vexatious or mischievous applications for care orders. Not just anyone can apply for such orders, as the power is limited to central and local government prosecutors and those invited into written agreement by MAFF or the Welsh Assembly Agriculture and Rural Development Department.

Magistrates will award an order only when veterinary evidence confirms that it is in the interests of the animals' welfare and have taken into account the owner's interests, including his interests in the animals' value. The Bill rightly contains provisions for any cost involved in caring for the animals to be recovered from the owner, but that should not impose extra costs on businesses. Costs would arise only when there was a prosecution for cruelty or

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neglect, and should not exceed what the owner would have incurred by looking after the animals properly and in accordance with the law.

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