Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs First Report


The current law on animal welfare in England and Wales is contained in over 20 pieces of legislation. The key protection is the offence of cruelty to animals, set out in the Protection of Animals Act 1911. This offence has remained fundamentally unaltered since its enactment. Farmed animals are also the subject of additional protection under the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968, which makes it an offence to cause unnecessary pain or distress to livestock.

The Government published the draft Animal Welfare Bill in July 2004. The draft Bill is intended to protect the welfare of companion and kept animals, including farmed animals, and to modernise existing animal welfare law. In addition to retaining the existing cruelty offence, the draft Bill would also introduce a new welfare offence, whereby a keeper's failure to take reasonable steps to ensure an animal's welfare would amount to an offence. The Government has indicated that the new offence is intended to allow action to be taken in respect of foreseeable harm, which is not possible under existing legislation.

We fully support the Government's initiative of seeking to modernise and improve animal welfare legislation, and its introduction of a new welfare offence. However, we consider that the draft Bill raises many important and often complex issues which must be resolved before a final Bill is introduced to Parliament. In this report, we make 101 recommendations suggesting modifications either to the draft Bill itself or the policy underlying it. There is also widespread public interest in the draft Bill: in the course of our examination, we received 220 written memoranda and took oral evidence from 51 organisations or individuals.

The draft Bill would delegate a very broad power, to the Secretary of State in England and the National Assembly in Wales, to make regulations to promote the welfare of kept animals. The Government intends to use this delegated power to regulate on wide-ranging and significant areas of activity, including licensing pet fairs, greyhound racing tracks and the use of performing animals. Tail docking of dogs and rearing of game birds would also be regulated by way of powers delegated under the draft Bill. We are unconvinced by the Government's justification for the breadth of this power. We therefore recommend that the regulation-making authority should be required to consult on draft regulations and to certify that draft regulations are justified either on the basis of scientific evidence or because they meet a genuine welfare need evidenced by the consultation procedure. Clearer requirements about the way in which licensing powers are to be exercised should be included on the face of the legislation. We also recommend that the Government should enter into an agreement with us whereby we undertake pre-legislative scrutiny of future draft regulations.

We identify several problems with the definitions used in the draft Bill. The draft Bill defines "animal" to mean all vertebrates (although the offence provisions would not extend this broadly). We recommend that the Government consider extending the draft Bill's application to octopus, squids and cuttlefish, and to crabs, lobsters and crayfish. The Government intends that the draft Bill should not extend protection to wild animals, living in the wild; we recommend that the Government re-examine whether the draft Bill actually achieves this end. We also consider that the draft Bill risks exposing commercial and recreational fishermen to prosecution.

We raise many concerns about the drafting of the offence provisions in the draft Bill. We are extremely concerned that the Government apparently intends that the cruelty offence should apply only to deliberate infliction of unnecessary suffering, excluding unnecessary suffering which arises as a result of negligence or neglect—this would appear to downgrade existing legal protections. We consider that the tests by which the courts will determine whether the cruelty offence is satisfied are unclear and will create uncertainty in prosecutions. We are concerned that the draft Bill would represent a significant weakening of the current law on the abandonment of animals.

Difficulties also arise in respect of the enforcement and prosecution provisions in the draft Bill. We consider that the gravity of certain offences in the draft Bill should be reflected in increased sentencing powers. We recommend that the most serious animal welfare offences should result in an automatic disqualification order. We conclude that the RSPCA should be able to continue to institute private prosecutions but that the draft Bill should be amended to clarify that prosecution powers under the legislation can be exercised only by a public authority.

Finally, whilst we welcome the opportunity to consider the draft Bill, we are concerned that this draft Bill was not an appropriate candidate for pre-legislative scrutiny by Parliament in the absence of the Government having first conducted its own consultation process. Defra last consulted on the policy proposals underlying the draft Bill two and a half years before its publication. Given the complexity of the draft Bill and the policy underlying it, and the widespread public interest in the legislation, we consider that it should have been subject to further consultation prior to being published for the purposes of pre-legislative scrutiny. We have worked extremely hard on the draft Bill in order to suggest what we consider are significant improvements to it, and we trust that the Government will take up our suggestions.

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Prepared 8 December 2004