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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 940-961)


14 OCTOBER 2004

  Q940 Mr Wiggin: I do not think that is going to change in this Bill.

  Mr Flower: No, but I wanted to stress both the importance of both the disqualification order and the power of the courts to confiscate.

  Q941 Chairman: Can I finally just raise one point under Clause 3, because Mr Flower I think made the point to us that the majority of activities of inspectors, inevitably because of numbers, is reactive to what information you get, and by and large the references that you receive are to acts of cruelty that have already taken place, but the Bill introduces an anticipatory element in that if you believe there are circumstances where cruelty or a failure on animal welfare could take place then intervention under the Bill is possible. Does that present you with any new challenges in terms (a) of the role of inspection and (b) the determination of when a prosecution might take place?

  Mr Flower: In terms of role and inspection, no, I do not believe it does, because as I have mentioned we already receive a huge number of complaints each year, and it transpires that a very small percentage of those complaints actually result in an offence of cruelty being detected, so it therefore follows that in the remainder there may be a welfare or a perceived welfare issue as far as the complainant is concerned, and that gives our inspectors the ability to address an animal's welfare needs by way of advice and education which is how we achieve the majority of our direct animal welfare work at the moment. The significance of Clause 3 is that the advice and instructions an inspector may be able to give to an owner will now be backed up by, if you like, the threat of sanctions. Rather than our inspectors just acting in an advisory way and hoping that someone will follow that advice, there will be a positive incentive for someone to do so to avoid falling foul of the law.

  Q942 Chairman: That is very clear. Now, in the remaining moments, would you like to highlight any further important points which have arisen from your listening to the evidence that has been given and by way of response that you wanted to give to the Committee?

  Mr Bowles: If we can just cover a couple of things in the draft Bill, firstly we are very happy with Clause 1, the cruelty offence. We do not think that should really be altered. We believe the welfare offence is operational as it is and it also provides the flexibility through the terms "reasonable steps" and "appropriate means", so we think that the welfare offence as it stands is good and can operate from day 1. There has been discussion earlier on about licensing and we would concur with the local authorities that we believe that licensing should be every twelve months, not eighteen, and we also believe that there should be some extra language in there on electric goads and use of electric collars which is not in there at the moment. But as you are aware, Chairman, a lot of the teeth of the legislation and the important bits will come in the secondary legislation, and we are not going to get into those until there is discussion on that secondary legislation and what it will mean. So in terms of the primary legislation we are, by and large, quite happy with the way it is phrased and the way it will operate.

  Q943 Mr Wiggin: Can I just ask a quick clarifying question on electric collars because I think it would be helpful for the Committee to know the difference between electric fencing and electric collars perhaps used for training dogs, potentially quite cruelly, compared to electric wires hidden under the ground that prevent an animal escaping, or an electric fence used for keeping farm animals in. Do you separate those?

  Mr Bowles: They are two different things but the RSPCA has concerns with both of those. We believe there are welfare concerns with either of those systems. We have more concerns with the actual electric goads rather than the fences, but we still think there are welfare concerns with both of those for the animal.

  Q944 Mr Wiggin: With all electric fencing?

  Mr Bowles: Yes.

  Q945 Patrick Hall: Can I ask for a clearer statement? Are you saying you are opposed to these measures?

  Mr Bowles: We are opposed to the use of electric goads and we are also opposed to electric shock collars for training purposes, for instance.

  Q946 Patrick Hall: So what sort of wording do you want to see on the face of the Bill?

  Mr Bowles: We would like to see something in there which states that the use of these mechanisms should not be allowed.

  Q947 Mr Wiggin: You just said "all electric fencing", though, when I checked with you. Did you mean that?

  Mr Bowles: No, not all electric fencing. What we are talking about is the use of electric implements for training purposes.

  Mr Wiggin: That is clearer.

  Q948 Chairman: I would be grateful for your observations by way of clarification. One of the main areas of concern and question has been the application of this Bill to animals which are not domesticated, and by that my personal definition is cats and dogs at home, farm animals and what-have-you, and, in that context for fishing, shooting, and animals that are involved in that kind of pursuit, there has been a fair amount of debate as to whether various acts performed by human beings in pursuit of country activities, for example, would be encapsulated by this particular measure, particularly at the time when human beings take over an element of control. We have had some very interesting evidence about the law of ownership of so-called wild animals on pieces of land and it is becoming, in my view anyway, a little bit confusing to know whether, for example, a fisherman who has a fish in a keep net then becomes embroiled by this particular Bill, or if somebody was out on a shoot and winged and did not get a clean kill on a pheasant or a partridge and the animal was suffering, is that potentially enveloped by these measures? Clearly, coming back to this business of inspection and prosecution, either somebody officially assuming that the Bill may become involved or all kinds of people who have concern about these pursuits may decide to go down a legislative route, and those are hypothetical possibilities. What I would be grateful for is your thoughts as to whether you think the Bill covers those particular areas that concern has been put to us about?

  Mr Flower: The Bill defines a protected animal in several ways but one of which is that it is an animal temporarily in custody or control of man, so it is arguable that a fish that is caught in a keep net may be temporarily in the custody or control of man but the fact that the fish is in a keep net does not render that as an act of cruelty. If someone then takes the fish and is cruel to it then they may well be caught by the Act and probably quite correctly so. As far as someone shooting birds is concerned, a wild bird is not within the temporary custody or control of man so I do not think the Act would apply.

  Q949 Chairman: Some of the arguments, for example game birds, have centred on dependency relationships, so that from the point of view of man rearing birds there is a dependency and, indeed, a control relationship because game birds can start life in an enclosed environment, they can be restricted in terms of movement as they develop prior to release into the wild, then they cross a line when they are released and then fly about and do whatever things partridges, pheasants and other things, for the purposes of shooting, do. It is quite interesting because when does something that has been particularly bred for the purposes of country pursuits and shooting cross the line and become a wild animal? Some conject that the very nature of the breeding for shooting is not a natural process but an artificial process—my words not theirs—but it does make some quite interesting arguments as to where the measures in the Bill apply. For example, if you were cruel to animals at the point of breeding then I can see quite clearly that or other legislation dealing with farmed animals would apply, but if you then release those animals into the natural environment, does this legislation bite on those? I am, again, interested in your views on those lines of argument.

  Mr Flower: I think perhaps the first point to make is that the current law would also apply in some of these circumstances because the 1911 Act protects both domestic and captive animals, so exactly the same arguments could be applied at present, but I think the issue with regard to game birds once they are released is that they are no longer kept by man.

  Q950 Mr Wiggin: This is quite an important point because you also release birds into the wild that perhaps have been damaged by a road accident, and the issue of abandonment is perhaps a grey area in this Bill. At what point are you allowing a creature to fend for itself if you have been looking after it?

  Mr Flower: I am not sure that "abandonment" is the appropriate term to use—

  Q951 Mr Wiggin: Because that would be cruel technically, would it not?

  Mr Flower: Yes, but if you are rehabilitating wildlife then it is appropriate for wildlife to be released back into the wild.

  Q952 Mr Wiggin: You and I understand that but if you are releasing a hawk, for example, that does not know how to hunt that is abandonment. If it does know how to hunt that is fine.

  Mr Flower: The difficulty in fending off this type of question is that every case will depend on its own merits, and if you release a hawk that is injured or unable to hunt that is in a different category to one that is fit and healthy. So it is difficult to generalise.

  Q953 Chairman: I think the line Mr Wiggin and I are concerned about is that if you decide you are going to have a cat or a dog there is a clear established relationship between the human being and the animal. My cat does not ask me whether it wants to come or go, it just goes, but it does have a dependency because it comes home to be fed and there is the personal relationship between the animal and the person who looks after it. But, for example, it has been put to us that if a wild animal sanctuary has an animal—and the RSPCA is in the same situation—brought to it, you are not establishing a right of ownership at that point; you are doing something benevolent. You are trying to rehabilitate the animal and then you are going to release it, but I think the concern was whether those acts of benevolence would also be covered by abandonment, because abandonment is releasing back into the wild something you had control of, and in that context most of the concerns have been put to us over people who buy exotic animals, find they cannot cope, open the door and let them go. That seems to me, as a layman, to be what abandonment is about: the temporary custody for purposes of benevolence re-releasing into the wild seems to be an intermediate process but not one which goes into the realms of abandonment. The concern is, to summarise, whether the Bill is clear enough to differentiate between the person who lets the exotic animal go and the person who may have a temporary relationship with an animal for the purposes of putting it back into the wild.

  Mr Flower: I think it is, and the welfare offence does refer to keeping animals in an appropriate manner, and obviously with wild animals it is not really appropriate to keep them in captivity indefinitely so it is appropriate to release them as soon as they are fit to be released. I have not seen anything in the Bill that causes me a particular concern in relation to that issue.

  Q954 Chairman: I think I draw from that that some of the concerns that have been expressed are but concerns in the hypothetical sense in understanding whether the legislation covers both country pursuits and the temporary containment of animals. If I have understood you, and I do not want to put words into your mouth but I think what you are saying is that you do not believe that the Bill should cause a problem in either of those respects?

  Mr Flower: I do not think it should, no. It is correct that if someone captures an animal and has control over it then they could then be caught by the provisions of the Bill because the animal is clearly in the temporary custody of man, but there is no reason why that should impinge upon any countryside pursuits because we are advised that country pursuits do not cause cruelty to animals. I think if someone were to catch a fox and then cruelly treat it then the action is indefensible anyway.

  Q955 Mr Wiggin: Would you accept that one of the things that is happening at the moment that gives me great concern is the capture of urban foxes where they are transported and then released in the countryside, where they rarely stand a chance? Would that fall within the remit of the Bill?

  Mr Flower: I do not know. I would have to give that one some thought. I have to confess that the situation with urban foxes is not something that I am entirely au fait with.

  Chairman: Come round to my garden! I can give you a little test bed to learn all that there is to know!

  Q956 Mr Wiggin: The issue was the releasing of them into the countryside where they are not really in a position to cope. That is the problem.

  Mr Flower: Certainly under the present law there is a very interesting argument to be raised by that scenario because it is theoretically possible that the animal has become a captive animal, and then one has to determine whether there is a likelihood of suffering if it is released.

  Mr Wiggin: That seems to be my experience, yes.

  Q957 Chairman: We have had a good session on some of what I call the fears and concerns of others. Are there any final comments that you would wish to put to the Committee, any final important points that you do not want us to forget?

  Mr Flower: From my point of view I would just like to reiterate, if I may, that which I said when I was here last. Firstly, that we do regard the Bill as being extremely useful. We strongly support Clause 3 and believe that it is very important that it is maintained. Our other principal concern, which I hope you will recall, was in relation to the eight day ruling relating to the seizure of animals, and we would sincerely hope that that can be addressed.

  Q958 Chairman: Just refresh our memory on what you would like that to be addressed about.

  Mr Flower: We would like it removed, effectively. We feel that the current law enables an animal to be seized if an offence is suspected and held pending determination of proceedings so the court can make an order. The owner of the animal would have a right to apply for the return of the animal and we feel those provisions should be mirrored in the Bill.

  Q959 Patrick Hall: Seized by— ?

  Mr Flower: The police or an inspector.

  Q960 Chairman: Not by the RSPCA inspector?

  Mr Flower: No.

  Q961 Chairman: But maybe the RSPCA inspector assisted by the police?

  Mr Flower: Yes.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. I hope you found that useful. I think we certainly found it useful in clarifying a number of points particularly in the areas of prosecution and we will now, as they say, close our public evidence sessions to go away and try and digest the very large amount of information that we have had. Can I just put on record my appreciation for the information which you have sent us over the period of our considerations; it has been very helpful. Thank you very much indeed.

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