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Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): May I begin by entirely endorsing what the Secretary of State said about Tony Banks? He would have loved to be here to witness the Bill. He was a passionate champion of animal welfarehe was almost as passionate about that as he was about Chelsea. He was a funny and clever man. I had the privilege of serving under him on your advisory committee on works of art, Mr. Speaker, which was a joy. When I was shadow Culture Secretary, I had the pleasure of sparring with him when he was Minister for Sport. It was a joy to be insulted by Tony Banks. I will never forget the time that I said something that annoyed him and he said, "I didn't come to the Chamber to be insulted by a man with a Kevin Keegan haircut." That was Tony Banks and, my goodness, how he will be missed.
I know that there is nothing like a debate about animals to bring hon. Members into the Chamber. A lot of people want to speak, so I shall do my best to be brief. However, let me begin by declaring an interest because I believe that I am a person who is responsible for a protected animal under the terms of the Bill. I own a dog, although it is a bit doubtful whether the dog would regard me as the responsible person because it steadfastly refuses to do anything that I ask it to do in our household.
The Bill has had a long gestation period and many midwives. It is the result of a great deal of hard work by a large number of individuals and bodies. As did the Secretary of State, I pay tribute to the work of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and its Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack). My hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin), who, I am pleased to say, will wind up the debate for the Opposition, also played a distinguished part in the Committee's proceedings, and I thank all who did so, whether in the House and outside. The Bill is better for the work that they put in.
The Government were right to introduce the Bill in draft form, allowing that input from a large number of different interests, but the scrutiny that that process enabled has exposed the complexity of the issues involved and the diversity of strongly held opinions on specific aspects of what is proposed. That complexity and conflict of opinion perhaps helps to explain why it has taken 95 years to get around to updating the basic framework of animal protection. It is not surprising that the Government have adopted a cautious, almost crablike approach to the legislationalthough I notice that, rather unfairly, crabs are not covered under the
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terms of the Bill. The effect of that approach, however, is that a large number of potentially controversial measures that the Government say they intend to introduce do not appear in the Bill, but will be the subject of secondary legislation. However, before I say more about that, I want to make some general comments on what is clearly a well-intentioned and welcome Bill.
The Secretary of State will be aware that there has been considerable debate about the definition of "animal" for the purposes of the Bill. Indeed, that subject has already been raised. The definition is confined to vertebrates other than man. As I understand it, the Bill's purpose is to alleviate the suffering of animals. It would be logical, therefore, to extend that protection to all animals that have been found, on scientific evidence, to be capable of suffering.
The Secretary of State and the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) know that it is the strongly held opinion of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and others that cephalopodsoctopus, squid and cuttlefishare capable of feeling pain. Despite what she said, it is hard to find any reason why the owners of such animals should not be subject to the duty of care that is being conferred on the owners of vertebrates.
Mr. Gray: Does my hon. Friend accept that the logic of his argument means that slugs and snails in the garden, which are invertebrates and therefore protected under the Bill, would be subject to the same duty of care?
Mr. Ainsworth: The first and most obvious point is that a person would have to be pretty strange to have a pet slug. I do not think that the duty of care applies. Nor is there a great deal of scientific evidence to suggest that slugs feel pain in the same way as other creatures. However, my hon. Friend makes his point in his own way.
For most people, the new duty of care will have no impact. The vast majority of people who care for animals find it second nature to look after them properly. However, it is a sad fact that much legislation is determined by the actions or failures of a minority. The evidence provided by the RSPCA suggests that a significant number of animals suffer every year because the law is either inadequate or flouted. Clause 8 represents a major step towards ending abuse and neglect. Indeed, the RSPCA goes further and says that it is
We also welcome the updating of the enforcement and sentencing provisions that will apply to animal welfare offences. Concerns have been raised that in practical terms the effect of the Home Office's custody plus arrangements will water those down. I hope that the Government look carefully at those suggestions. In addition, I hope that they give further thought to the recommendation of the EFRA Committee that greater maximum sentences should be available to the courts in particularly serious cases of abuse. The Bill also proposes to close a significant loophole whereby people who are subject to disqualification orders flout them by
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pretending that custody of their animals has passed to somebody else. We very much welcome the closing of that loophole.
Given the frustration that has often been expressed about the way in which the courts frequently do not use the existing powers available to themthe Environmental Audit Committee came across that in its inquiry into wildlife crime not long agoI am particularly pleased that the courts will now be required to give reasons for not issuing a disqualification order in the event of someone being found guilty of a cruelty offence. All of that, and more, we can agree on.
It will not surprise the Secretary of State to learn that we do have some concerns about a number of measures that will be introduced under the legislation which are not in the Bill. I am talking about the proposed codes of practice and the regulations that are to be introduced by statutory instrument. Rarely can a regulatory impact assessment have contained more information about the Government's intentions than the Bill itself or the explanatory notes. Thank goodness for the regulatory impact assessmentbut it would have been much better if the proposed codes of conduct and regulations had been produced in time, if only in draft form, so that their impact could be considered in the context of the Bill.
Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): Is my hon. Friend confident that the Bill will give sufficient protection to the 9,000 or so greyhounds that every year are found to be surplus to the requirements of the racing industry?
Mr. Ainsworth: I cannot say that I am wholly confident of that because it is one of the matters that will be dealt with under regulations, but the Government have stated their intention to deal with that problem. The duty of care will, of course, apply to greyhounds anyway, so there will be some improvement there. My hon. Friend raises a very good example of the uncertainties that surround so much of this legislation.
Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is right to say that a number of highly important and controversial issues will be dealt with in detail in secondary legislation. Does he agree that that constitutes a strong case for the Select Committee to scrutinise those matters in the way that it scrutinised the draft Bill?
Mr. Ainsworth: I believe that the hon. Gentleman served on the Committee that looked at the draft Bill. It is not for me to say what the Select Committee might want to take up in its future programmeI know that Select Committees have more than enough suggestions for their workload most of the timebut it is an interesting suggestion.
Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con):
May I give my hon. Friend a specific example of the contents of the regulatory impact assessment? I refer to regulations governing the selling of pet animals over the internet. That measure has to be debated properly because it appears to exclude the advertising of pet animals or the selling of animals on auction sites, and the trade is one that should be properly regulated.
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Mr. Ainsworth: I agree. In fairness, the Government have said that they will consult before introducing any of these regulations, but I shall have a little to say about the inadequacy of Statutory Instrument Committees as a means of ensuring thorough and sound debate.
That, really, is the trouble. Even with the commitment to consult on the regulations and codes of practice, that is an inadequate way for Parliament to consider detailed legislation. Unamendable statutory instruments get a maximum of one and a half hours of obscure debate in Committee. I speak as a former Government assistant Whip, so I know whereof I speakGovernment Members are not exactly encouraged by the Whips to participate in the proceedings.
I think I know why the Government have taken this approach. It is partly to prevent the Bill from becoming too long, complex and inflexible, and I have some sympathy with that. However, the Bill is enabling only in the sense that it enables the Government to do virtually whatever they want.
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