Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examinations of Witnesses (Questions 300-312)



  Q300 Paddy Tipping: Perhaps you could tell us what bits you want sorted out?

  Mr Thorley: Again, when it comes down to interpretation and definition of the word "cruelty", we have gone into that a bit in the response. We have given you one example where a ram could have escaped from the paddock that he was in because he had seen some pretty ewes across the patch and he had taken issue with another ram and possibly damaged him. It is the farmer, under this draft legislation, who would be charged with cruelty in that case. When it comes down to fencing, you can have perfectly good fences but you can also have very active rams which can escape, with difficulty certainly, but, once they have escaped, there is absolutely no control over what they do, especially during the mating season.

  Q301 Paddy Tipping: Do you see that as a serious issue where you or one of your members might be prosecuted under this Bill if it became law?

  Mr Thorley: That is one of its problems. It is not clear. Earlier on we talked about the word "abandonment". The definition of the word "abandonment" needs to be clear, bearing in mind the wide variety of types of farming. For instance, you have areas which are fenced and areas which are unfenced. At what stage does it become abandoned? Is that calculated in hours, days or weeks? In our book, those things need to be sorted out and clarified.

  Q302 Paddy Tipping: On the point that Mr Alderson made as well, do you think that clauses 6 and 7 are catch-all at the moment, very wide? You do understand that both clause 6 and clause 7 are subject to further discussion as proposals are brought forward?

  Mr Alderson: Yes, and that was the point we made quite strongly, that they should be subject to further consultation. If those two sections, 6 and 7, were expanded, detailed and applied as they could be under that draft, we could finish up with some legislation which was impossible to apply in some sectors. I would support what Mr Thorley says: two things, clarity and definitions, are very important to us. I can pick out other words such as the word "mutilation" and ask what you mean by mutilation. Is taking the tail off a sheep mutilation? It may be done for the benefit of the animal. What does the word "suitable" mean? It is a delightful word, is it not? You can apply it anywhere you want but here it is applied in terms of the environment in which the animals live. Is a crazy sheep that lives in the Orkney Islands eating seaweed in a suitable environment? It is for that sheep but not for anything else. A lot of definition needs to be applied. We could be worried about how those definitions were made.

  Q303 Paddy Tipping: Finally, I know there has been a lot of discussion between Defra and your own body and others before this Bill was actually published in this form. Have you or your members been involved in those processes or have you just come to this anew now?

  Mr Alderson: This is an interesting point. I understand that from Defra's point of view we have been consulted and involved, but from my point of view we have not. I am coming to it with a fairly clean sheet.

  Q304 Paddy Tipping: Tell me about this relationship with Defra. They say they have been talking with you.

  Mr Alderson: I understand from other sources—and we talk to Defra regularly—that on this particular issue with this particular draft Bill, I am coming to it with a clean sheet.

  Mr Thorley: We work very closely with Defra. We had a rough idea what was coming but I think we were still surprised at the lack of precision in some of the drafting. As it is, we see it as a lawyers' paradise, for want of a better phrase.

  Q305 Joan Ruddock: I want to explore that a little further because there is another way of looking at it, which is to suggest that one can never be so precise in any use of language as to make every case a black and white issue. There is in law the test of reasonableness. It seems to me it is possible that this is the way in which it would be dealt with. Taking the examples you gave of the rams and other escaped animals, do you accept that there is a spectrum, a standard of management, which would normally contain rams and that this event would not happen but there would be occasional escapes. There could be a farmer or a stockman whose management is so poor, who is so neglectful, that these escapes would occur at a level at which the farmer does have some responsibility and when there is a failure to prevent it?

  Mr Thorley: I understand that perfectly. One of the issues we have to contend with these days is that the access laws mean that more and more people can come on to the land. One of the consequences of that is that gates get left open. It is a very serous issue. There is a need for an education programme to make sure that that is limited, but it is a problem. Once a ram escapes, then you have to ask who is responsible. If the farmer can be prosecuted for cruelty as a consequence, then that becomes a very serious issue. This law of unintended consequences we have referred to is the result of the sort of problem we have outlined in some of our examples.

  Q306 Joan Ruddock: Pursuing this and to be clear, in the scenario you mention where it is the fault of somebody who has been walking on the land—although I do not know that people do go and open gates and let rams out, but, assuming they do—are there cases in your experience—because otherwise the people who have been drafting this Bill must be quite misinformed because they do believe that there are cases—of farmers who are neglectful in terms of keeping their animals safe? If that is so, then these people have a responsibility and the law must deal with them. Are you suggesting there are no such farmers?

  Mr Thorley: I would not dream of suggesting that. Of course there are those cases. Where the farmer has been neglectful, that is one issue. Where they have not been neglectful then that is quite a different issue. Sheep mate roughly three months in the year and during that time the rams become extremely aggressive and there is nothing you can do to change that; that is part of their nature. Sometimes it does take a very strong fence to contain a ram and even when a farmer has done his utmost to contain that animal, it then escapes. This happens all the time. If he is prosecuted, then we think it is very hard that he should be prosecuted for cruelty.

  Q307 Paddy Tipping: We have talked about these issues previously. The legislation will have to be tested. In the cases that you are talking about, this seems quite unlikely, does it not?

  Mr Thorley: We are saying that, in order to be happy with this Bill, we would prefer it to return to the draughtsmen so that we can get that sort of detail sorted out and for there to be clarity. The more clarity we have, the less likelihood there is for problems.

  Mr Alderson: May I pick up on two words there which are important? One was "reasonableness" and the other "unlikely". I take the point about reasonableness. If that could be applied, it would answer many of my concerns. I am not confident it would be applied in a sense that we would consider reasonable. I accept the word "likely" is an excellent one but I am worried about the margin that falls outside the "likely" because for that section it is not acceptable.

  Mr Jack resumed the Chair

  Q308 Mr Lepper: Mr Alderson, I think yours is the only organisation we have heard from so far that has raised the issue in clause 4 of under 16s not being able to own animals. You state: "The clause requires further clarification, with an understanding that many children of livestock farmers own livestock . . ." Do you mean that literally?

  Mr Alderson: I do, yes. I grew up as such a child. When very young I was given or even purchased animals of my own, which were kept on my father's farm but which I looked after. My understanding and involvement with animals grew from that start. I understand why that is being brought in, because it clearly is a serious problem with Christmas presents or whatever else it may be we are talking about. What worries me about the blanket treatment across different classes of animals is that it could prevent such a situation taking place in the future.

  Q309 Mr Lepper: You say in your evidence that being able to own livestock as a child helps youngsters, and you have told us that you yourself acquired valuable experience of livestock. Could not that same experience be gained without there being the question of ownership?

  Mr Alderson: Yes, of course it could. It is not insuperable. Probably what I was drawing attention to was the consequence of something which it may not have been realised was being applied as a generality.

  Q310 Chairman: I apologise for not being here when you started to give your evidence. It is a pleasure to see John Thorley in front of the Committee. He and I have known each other for a long time over matters to do with sheepdogs. It is a pleasure to see you. I just wondered, and forgive me if colleagues have asked this, if you would like to say a word or two about the powers of entry which are conferred upon various persons, constables and inspectors, in the Bill and whether you think these will cause, particularly in the real world of sheep, problems to farmers.

  Mr Thorley: We take the view that they would cause some problems. In the first place, the definition of "inspectors" we find quite worrying because, as things stand, an inspector could be someone who comes off the street. He could be someone who is antagonistic to the livestock world in general with perhaps just a very short period of training and he may not really understand how things happen on a farm anyway. There are already problems in that area and we have many debates with the RSPCA on this subject, some of which are quite acrimonious due to some of the people they have working for them not being of a standard that we would consider suitable. If people of that nature were to be involved in the inspection process, then that would create a problem. Equally, with regard to the time people are able to come on to a farm: for instance, I do not consider it reasonable that they can be there as early as 5 o'clock in the morning and I would not consider it reasonable that they could be there up until 11 o'clock at night. At what stage does reasonableness come into this? The example which has been given of dealing with a dog that has been shut up in a car is a perfect one. A dog should not be shut up in a car but that should not be taken as an example of a reason for there being easy entry to certain parts of the farm.

  Q311 Chairman: One of the issues that has been raised in this context by other witnesses is the recognition that there is no expertise in all cases. For example, the RSPCA I think acknowledges the fact that in certain areas people of particular expertise might have to give advice to an inspector such as in the area of reptiles, particularly rarer breed examples. Are you suggesting that there should be, if you like, some repository of knowledge which inspectors should have to refer to if they do not have particular training and expertise in an area before going on to premises and, if so, what kind of mechanism would one put in place to do that, or do you think that inspection should always come from some recognised body that does have expertise in that area?

  Mr Thorley: I would prefer the latter. It is very important that people who are inspectors should be properly qualified and properly examined so that they are of a certain standard and have a standard of knowledge.

  Q312 Chairman: You mentioned, and again please forgive me if colleagues have raised this, that there ought to be some kind of independent complaints authority. Perhaps you could just tease out for the Committee's benefit exactly where you see that type of mechanism fitting in. Clearly, if inadequate evidence is brought before prosecuting authorities, as I understand it, the prosecution authority might turn round and say, "You have bought us this picture of what happens on this particular sheep farm or establishment but you have not provided us with sufficient evidence in depth to bring a prosecution. Go away and try again". There are  various statutory mechanisms like the Parliamentary Commissioner, who can deal with inappropriate official action according to whether the body is one over which the Commissioner has jurisdiction. I was intrigued, given that sort of  defence, if you like, against inappropriate prosecution. I wondered where and how this independent complaints authority fitted in with the aims and objectives of the Bill.

  Mr Thorley: Let us go back to the first point. As an organisation, we are entirely supportive of the animal welfare concept. That support is 100%. What has concerned us over the past few years is the ability of a particular organisation—and I will name it, it is the RSPCA—which has taken out prosecutions against people and put an enormous number of people into a great deal of distress. That is a serious issue, especially when it is related to inspectors operating in a particular area. If it was universal, it could be dealt with in another way but some of this is localised. I have personally chaired meetings of people who have been so concerned about the degree of harassment that they would not give their names. I am concerned that we do not allow this Bill to provide more powers to people who get into that position, for the simple reason that I do not believe people should be harassed; I do not believe there should be bad welfare either but where there are concerns, it ought to be possible for individuals or organisations to approach a central authority with a complaint.

  Chairman: I will reflect, as I am sure will the rest of the Committee, carefully on that thought. Thank you both very much indeed for coming and giving your evidence and also for sending your evidence in writing. If, as a result of these exchanges, there is anything else in writing that you wanted to put to the Committee, we would certainly read it with interest.

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