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Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I wish to make a point that was made to me by a highly respected member of my constituency, who is the driving force behind a local animal welfare sanctuary. He said:
"It appears that the Government has released yet another unworkable piece of legislation that will undoubtedly have an adverse effect on animal keeping. All that appears to have come out of this new Animal Welfare Bill is seeing more power given to the RSPCA and more legislation and costs that cannot be absorbed into already stretched budgets by sanctuaries."
Margaret Beckett: Well, the Bill does not give greater powers to the RSPCA. The issue will, I am sure, arise in Committee, but it is our view that no responsible animal sanctuary will have any difficulty meeting the provisions in the Bill.
Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that because of the increased duty of care that the Bill introduces, animal sanctuaries are likely to be needed far more in the future? As such, does she agree that we should bring forward the licensing of animal sanctuaries to offer that protection to animals? I was a co-sponsor of the private Member's Bill introduced a couple of years ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) on animal sanctuaries, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will follow up the main suggestions it contained.
My hon. Friend also makes an important point. I can assure her that we are prepared to look at the issue with some sympathy and I take her point that the Bill may result in a greater need for animal sanctuaries in the future.The powers for licensing and registration will replace a range of statutes regulating such activities as performing animals, pet shops, riding schools and dog-breeding and animal-boarding establishments. Through secondary legislation, we will regulate activities such as animal sanctuaries, pet fairs, livery yards and the welfare of racing greyhounds. We have tried to involve interested parties in the
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development of those proposals and we believe that they are on a scale appropriate to the problems that they seek to address; but I take the points that have been made in interventions, which can no doubt be considered as the legislation is discussed.
In most cases we intend to replace the existing 12-month licences with more flexible ones of no more than three years' duration. In some areas, with regard to animal sanctuaries, we are considering registration rather than licensing, although as I said we shall keep the issue under review. A more flexible approach should allow local authorities to target establishments according to risk, thus concentrating their resources where acceptable standards are not being met. It will allow vets and others to become involved without imposing unreasonable financial burdens on the activity that is being licensed or registered. Details of our proposals on secondary legislation are set out in the regulatory impact assessment. As I have already said, there will be full public consultation and scrutiny.
The Bill, like the legislation it will replace, will be what is perhaps somewhat infelicitously called a "common informers" Act, which means that anyonea private individual or an organisationcan take forward a prosecution under its provisions if they think that they have the necessary evidence. However, powers of entry, search and seizure are reserved for the police, local authorities and the state veterinary service. The definition of an inspector is a person appointed to be an inspector by such an authority.
During the pre-legislative scrutiny, there were a number of questions about the role of the RSPCA and its inspectors. As I said to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) a few moments ago, the Bill does not give the RSPCA specific extra powers; indeed, it should be made clear that the RSPCA has not asked for any such extra powers. As is the case now, if the RSPCA has reason to believe that an offence has been committed and entry to a property has been refused, it will approach the police to ask them to use their powers of entry.
Our society is increasingly and rightly intolerant of acts of violence and cruelty towards animals, but recent press campaigns have revealed some nauseating examples of ill-treatment and abuse. From the enormous postbag on such issues received by my Department and, I think, every Member, we know that the public at large want us to provide the courts with tougher penalties for offenders, and that is what the Bill does.
The maximum penalty for causing unnecessary suffering will be a fine of £20,000 or 51 weeks' imprisonment, or both. At present, the top fine is £5,000, so the Bill has raised that penalty significantly. The maximum sentence of 51 weeks' imprisonment is the maximum that magistrates courts can impose under the Criminal Justice Act 2003. The maximum penalty under the welfare offence will be £5,000 or 51 weeks' imprisonment, or both. We are also using the Bill to close a loophole in existing legislation, whereby offenders can circumvent orders disqualifying them from having custody of an animal.
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Will the right hon. Lady clarify a point about the different penalties to which she has just referred? In one case, there is a fine of up to £20,000 and/or 51 weeks in prison; in the other, £5,000 and/or 51 weeks in prison. Can she explain the lack of equivalence between the financial penalty and the sentence of imprisonment in those two different offences?
Margaret Beckett: If the hon. Gentleman looks at the legislation that the Bill replaces, he will see that there were similar differences. These are issues that can be explored in Committee. If the House feels that a change should be made, no doubt that can be considered.
I should perhaps make a point about different legislation in different countries. We have put in place procedures for both jurisdictionsEngland and Wales and Scotlandto have reciprocal arrangements in place to apply disqualification orders so that we prevent any circumstance arising in which a person who is found unfit to own or look after animals by a court in one part of the UK can evade the law by moving between countries.
It was in keeping with the traditions of the House and our people that we were the first nation to protect animals by statute. Since that step was first taken as long ago as the early 19th century, attitudes have undergone a radical change. Over the past 200 years, legislators, the Executive and the courts have stamped out a litany of mediaeval practices: bull-running, bear-baiting, cockfighting, the use of dogcarts, random and pre-meditated acts of cruelty
Margaret Beckett: I was not going to mention that. There is such a mood of consensus and support across the House that it would be a pity to jeopardise it in any way, especially as I welcome the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) to his first such debate in this Parliament in his new role.
Those practices were eradicated, or largely eradicated, through statutory initiative. By progressively placing cruelty towards animals outside the bounds of acceptable behaviour, legislation has helped to create a society and a
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culture in which the vast majority of our fellow citizens abhor unnecessary suffering in animals. We hope and believe that the Bill will create an opportunityjust as the 1911 legislation created a platform on which cruelty became increasingly unacceptablein the coming 100 years for human responsibility for animal welfare to be actively recognised, nurtured and practised.
I hope that the Bill will serve the purpose of putting animal welfare at the heart of our legislation and that it will take us through the next 100 years, not least because the flexibility that it creates will allow us to make changes much more easily to reflect changing circumstances. I am happy to commend it to the House.
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