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Andrew Miller accordingly presented a Bill to forbid bus companies to reduce bus services without prior consultation; to make provision about services for elderly passengers and passengers with disabilities; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 12 May, and to be printed [Bill 108].

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Orders of the Day

Animal Welfare Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

3.46 pm

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The whole House will understand that it would perhaps be an error of judgment not to mention in the opening stages of this debate our good friend and colleague Tony Banks, a man who always had something pertinent, and frequently something impertinent, to say about animal welfare issues. Certainly, we all owe him a debt of gratitude in highlighting those issues.

This Bill is the most significant and comprehensive proposal for animal welfare legislation for nearly a century and it fulfils a commitment that we made in our last manifesto. It promotes a positive duty to ensure the welfare of animals, and brings the law on pets up to date with the law on farmed livestock. It increases the penalties available for the most serious offences while closing an existing loophole, and brings together and simplifies more than 20 pieces of legislation.

The Bill is the result of some four years' work by my Department, beginning with a public consultation in 2002. The subsequent draft Bill was given pre-legislative scrutiny in 2004 by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to whose work I pay tribute. The Committee heard representations from many parties, including the Welsh Assembly, and worked intensively to produce its report. The Government have listened carefully to its recommendations and have made a number of important changes as a result. The Bill that we are discussing today is undoubtedly better as a result of that work, and I am also grateful for the follow-up work done by the Committee since the Bill's First Reading in October.

It is also right to acknowledge the substantial contributions made by members of the public, who responded in large numbers to the consultation and to campaigns run subsequently by non-governmental organisations and others in favour of the Bill, and by stakeholders from across society. Since the end of the formal consultation, my Department has had exhaustive discussions with many interested parties to refine policy and to try to improve further the Bill's drafting. The overwhelming reaction from all those channels—the Select Committee, the public and stakeholders—has been positive, and the Bill has had a very warm welcome.

Before I turn to the principal provisions of the Bill, let me comment briefly on the background to it. The linchpin of our current legislative framework is the Protection of Animals Act 1911, which, as the House will appreciate, is nearly 100 years old. In its time, the 1911 Act was a landmark Bill that set out specific prohibitions against human cruelty to animals and proved remarkably enduring—for more than 50 years, Parliament dealt only with relatively minor amending Acts and supplementary provisions. In the 1960s, however, concerns about new farming methods and a better understanding of good husbandry practices led
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Parliament to pass the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968. That Act was a further landmark. For the first time, the law moved beyond simply regulating cruelty and created a positive regulation-making power to promote the welfare of animals. That power, however, was limited to the welfare of farm livestock. Since then, Parliament has passed major laws on animal health and scientific procedures, but the 1911 Act, supplemented by the 1968 Act and some 20 others, remains the platform for animal protection legislation.

After 90 years of evolution, it is clear that our existing law is excessively complex and inaccessible, written in the language of an earlier age, and—more important—unnecessarily inconsistent in the standards that it sets. In particular, it has failed to keep up with scientific advances. Since the 1960s, research into the behaviour and physiology of individual species has greatly improved our understanding of the sheer complexity of animal welfare. The pace of scientific progress is expected to quicken in the years ahead, requiring flexibility in both policy-making and legislation.

In respect of livestock, the power to make regulations under the 1968 Act allows the Government to respond to scientific developments and evolving welfare standards set by, for instance, the European Union. In respect of pets, however, the inflexibility of the 1911 Act requires the Government—or, indeed, Members—to present amending Bills to effect change. Given the competing priorities for parliamentary time, that asymmetry means that protection for pets is lagging behind protection for farmed animals. The Bill creates a more flexible statutory framework. It sets out key principles, but leaves detailed matters to secondary legislation. The Government believe that that flexibility is critical if our legislation is to keep pace with the expected advances in animal welfare.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): We all accept the necessity for the flexibility in legislation to which the Secretary of State has rightly referred, but will she give an undertaking that if she introduces that regulation-making provision, she will first engage in the careful process of consultation, thought and discussion in which she engaged before introducing the Bill?

Margaret Beckett: I certainly give that undertaking, and will give it more explicitly later in my speech. I appreciate that there is always a balance to be struck. I think that, especially given the example of farmed animals, the whole House will recognise the benefits of enabling legislation that provides more flexibility; but of course there must be a proper safeguard.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): May I take up what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray)? Many riding schools and livery yards are important centres of local employment in rural areas. Can the Secretary of State assure the House, and small businesses, that there will be enough time for consultation? All too often, measures such as this are rushed through. I understood the Secretary of State's response to my hon. Friend's point about the detail, but the timing is also crucial.

Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman has made an important point, and I am happy to give him that
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assurance. We are very conscious of the impact that regulatory change can have on organisations. He rightly mentioned the horse, livery and stable industry, which is worth—I think my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, knows the amount.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Knight): It is worth £3.5 billion.

Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman was also right to remind us of the employment implications. I take his point entirely.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on presenting a landmark Bill, the first for 100 years or more—since the time of the last Liberal Government.

My right hon. Friend spoke of the importance of reflecting scientific advance in legislation. Scientific advance has certainly shown that cephalopods have complex brains and sense organs rivalling those of vertebrates. Will she reassure us that as the science develops, the legislation will be flexible enough to allow those categories of organism to be incorporated in the definition of "animal" if the scientific evidence is proved correct in a way that satisfies the Government of the day? Such matters are important. We do not want to have to wait a further century for the next Liberal Government before the legislation is updated.

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend is entirely right and I am very conscious of the fact that this issue was raised during the Select Committee's discussions, to which he was doubtless party. This is a classic example of why we want such flexibility in the Bill. The Government take the view—perhaps to his regret—that the scientific evidence on this issue is currently insufficiently strong. But should stronger evidence become available, it is important that we can act, which is part of the reason for approaching the legislation in this way.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her generosity and I, too, salute the Bill. In setting the scene, can she briefly explain why, pursuant to clause 61 and the question of the Bill's extent, all of it applies to England and Wales but only small parts of it to Scotland and Northern Ireland? Will equivalent measures be included in legislation covering those two jurisdictions?

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