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Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted to take part in the debate. We have all made comments about the late Tony Banks. I am sure that he would have some comments about those pleasantries, which he would express in his own inimitable way. I hope that the Bill will to some extent be a memorial to his wonderful work in the House on animal welfare.
This is a substantial Bill. Some say that it should go further in the sense of, as the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) said, clarifying some of the issues that we have debated, but there is some merit in keeping
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the Bill reasonably lean. I am interested less in the regulatory impact assessment than in the codes of practice. I hope that, if I am selected to serve on the Committee, we will have the opportunity to hear from the Minister what real authority will lie behind the codes of practice. In some respects that will test whether the legislation will be as effective as some of us want it to be. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), I earnestly hope that the Government are brave in Committee and on Report.
Although I am not a "banner" by inclination, the Government must make the matter clear. Even if they do not spell out the position in the Bill, they should clarify the situation through their subsequent use of the regulatory process. The issues raised by tail docking, electric collars, pet fairs and circuses, and arising from the treatment of crustaceans, cephalopods, game birds and greyhounds cannot be wished away, and those are just the subjects that hon. Members have mentioned today. If the Government do not want to make their position clear in Committee, they must set out how they will revisit those issues and what they intend to do. As my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) said, there is merit in keeping the Bill flexible, and the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) also referred to the advantages of flexibility. We cannot do everything immediately, although some of us want to.
In passing, I congratulate the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on its work. I am a member of the Committee, but I was ill during some of the pre-legislative scrutiny, which the Government have pioneered and which has proved its worth in this case.
I welcome the redefinition of cruelty. Unlike the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), I think that the Bill clarifies the concept of cruelty in relation to abandonment, neglect and mental cruelty, although those points may require further explanation through challenges in the courts. The Bill contains clear legal judgments that will help us to define how to attack cruelty, and although the five freedoms that form the basis of the duty of care will be tested, we have got a good Bill to fall back on.
I pay tribute to the RSPCA, which is clearthis point was borne out by recent briefingsthat cruelty is a growing problem. It is difficult to prosecute people under the current legislation, but the number of cases in which the RSPCA is involved is increasing. In her excellent speech, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald discussed how different organisations have faced up to that trend, and it is good to be on the same side as her in that regard, if not in all regards.
The RSPCA supports the legislation because of the problems that it faces. Whatever fine words we use in this House, what happens on the ground is most important in the long run. If nothing else, I hope that we can amend the ridiculous idea that a RSPCA inspector must make 25 visits to the most awful cases in order to prosecute someone due to the worst excesses of ownership or the neglect of ownership. The RSPCA inspectors with whom I have been out would welcome clear guidance on the grounds on which they can enter a property, and they are looking forward to the Bill's enactment at the earliest opportunity.
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I urge the Government to examine the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966, which is parallel legislation to the Bill, because I regularly talk to vets, who want their particular powers to be updated. No doubt the DEFRA team will argue for such an examination as part of the future legislative programme. Vets need their powers, which need to be brought into the 21st century, to be clarified in areas such as charging and responsibility.
Concerns have been expressed in the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee about the custody and control of animals, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will put on the record that the Government are sure, having listened to the Committee, that the wording will clarify the issue. Hon. Members have discussed some of the problems, and I shall raise another: given bovine TB, what would happen if someone wants to adopt a friendly badger? What would be that badger's status if there were a subsequent cull, which might cover a wider area than some of us might want? Such test cases must be thought through very carefully.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood has covered some of the issues associated with shooting and fishing, on which various organisations will want the Standing Committee to test the impact of the Bill. The Government have made it clear that they do not want the Bill to impact on shooting and fishing, but the matter will undoubtedly be debated. I am against snaring as a form of animal control, and I hope that we clarify what is allowableI know where I stand on that issue.
The Bill will have cost implications for local authorities, which will take on additional responsibilities, and for the RSPCA. Perhaps we will get some figures about the real cost of the Bill on Third Reading.
In conclusion, I hope that the Bill is passed tonight without a vote, which would send a signal to people who want to see the implementation of animal welfare legislation that the House can act unanimously, even if differences and disagreements subsequently arise over the detail. The devil will be in the detail, but this is the right time to introduce the Bill. I congratulate the Government on introducing the Bill and hope that some of the difficult issues are clarified in subsequent debates.
Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): As hon. Members will know, I am the proud owner of Buster, a two-year-old Staffordshire bull terrier. Buster's welfare is fully provided for. He is well fed, well exercised, has a vet when he needs one, and is microchipped. Overall, he has a very comfortable existence.
As a nation of animal lovers, one would assume that most people in the United Kingdom would treat animals in a similar way. Since my election as a Member of Parliament, I have often supported charities and organisations that strive to improve animal welfare in foreign countries, assuming that the problem of animal cruelty was more urgent elsewhereabroad rather than at home. Sadly, however, it does not take much effort to find a lot of evidence of unacceptable animal cruelty and maltreatment taking place here in Britain. One has only to open a newspaper to see a report detailing stomach-churning atrocities committed by human beings on animals.
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In the past few years, the media have reported many acts of cruelty that are so despicable as to be almost beyond belief. The Sun recently drew attention to the plight of Spot, a Dalmatian found hanged from a tree by thugs. In August 2003, a particularly vile individual physically bit the head off a kitten at a barbecue. In Colwyn Bay last year, a rabbit was snatched from a children's farm at a zoo and thrown into the alligator house next door. In the space of two days in September 2005, a cat was thrown from a bridge on to the M6, another cat was found decapitated in Gloucester, and more than 100 cats were found dead in a house in Leeds. Even in my own constituency, last year a small dog called Harry was, for no apparent reason, beaten to death with a broom handle by an intruder and left in a pool of blood, causing untold distress to that family in Romford.
Such offences are so inhumane that one almost cannot believe that they could possibly occur in our countrybut they did, and they are not isolated cases. It emerges from the Bill's regulatory impact assessment that in 2004 the RSPCA rescued or picked up more than 150 animals, answered more than 1.1 million telephone calls and investigated more than 100,000 cruelty cases. The neglect of animals is clearly a growing problem, with cases of ill-treatment rising by 78 per cent. in 2004 on the previous year. Current legislation seems powerless to deal with it. Also in 2004, only 870 people were found guilty of offences under the Protection of Animals Act 1911.
So many people seem to be getting away with acts of cruelty, and so few are punished. A perfect example of animal cruelty occurring on a weekly basis is the abhorrent practice of dog fighting. The RSPCA estimates that this barbaric act is staged by more than 100 people on a regular basis. The dogs are trained on treadmills, often with live pets shackled just out of reach of their jaws as an enticement for the animal to keep running. The dogs' jaws are strengthened by forcing them to bite tyres and wooden sticks, while their bodies are primed with the aid of steroids. Their trainers turn these animals into killing machines before throwing them into combat with other dogs, the contest finishing only when one dog can no longer fight. If a dog flees, it will be killed. The animals are brave and vicious, so injuries sustained to the head, neck and front limbs are horrific, often including crushed and broken bones and torn-off ears. Because of their owners' fear of being reported, the dogs are not even allowed proper medical attention to their wounds. If a dog somehow manages to remain alive following a fight, it may well die subsequently as a result of its injuries. The owners of these dogs seem to see themselves as coaches and their animals as warriors that they are training for gladiatorial combat. The reality is that they are animal abusersa minority of thugs who subject animals to a doomed existence of violence, pain and inevitable death. The lives of these dogs are allowed to be destroyed purely so that a minority of sick spectators can get their kicks and have a bet.
Under existing laws, the penalty for partaking in dog fighting is just six months' jail or a fine of £5,000. After a three-year RSPCA investigation, the nine men and a woman prosecuted were handed puny jail sentences of no more than four months, a conditional discharge, and community service orders for offences associated with
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pit bull ownership. Those people, who were responsible for such abuse of dogs, were given a completely inadequate punishment under current legislation. That must change, and it is a key reason why I fully support the Bill. The penalty will be increased to 51 weeks' jail or a £20,000 fine, or both. It will be illegal to arrange an animal fight, to take bets on an animal fight, and to be present at an animal fight. The increased penalty, combined with the new laws, will place a far heavier deterrent on this savage blood sport, which truly belongs in the dark ages. However, I should like to voice the concern, which I share with the RSPCA, that it is not an offence under the Bill to be in possession of dog-fighting paraphernalia. We have a duty to do our best to eradicate this foul practice, and that is an issue that the Minister should address.
As many hon. Members will know, particularly those who are members of the all-party greyhound group, we have in my constituency a first-class greyhound stadium, and many Romford residents regularly enjoy a night out at the dogs. Last year, I was honoured to accompany Lady Thatcher on her visit to the stadium, where the noble Baroness watched the lunch time races and was introduced to two of the winning greyhounds.
Nevertheless, there is grave concern over the plight of many greyhounds once their racing career is over. About 35,000 greyhounds are at racing strength at any given time, beginning their racing life at 16 months, but usually finishing before the age of three. As a result, 9,000 greyhounds cease to race every year. Despite valiant efforts by the Retired Greyhound Trust, which re-homes about 3,000 dogs, and locally based groups such as the Romford Greyhound Owners Association, little information is available about what happens to the remaining animals. The industry is self-regulating. It wishes to sustain that arrangement because of the huge income that is generated, but the system has proved open to abuse, and in the absence of consistent monitoring of any dog's whereabouts, animals can end up being disposed of ruthlessly.
Although virtually all those involved in the greyhound industry are animal lovers, there are exceptions, and I am sure that most of the industry will appreciate the extended protection that the Bill provides to dogs. It will legally enforce many of the practices undertaken by those within the industry. It will ensure that those owning greyhounds provide a safe home for them; if they do not, the consequences will be severe. With increased power, the RSPCA will be able to intervene earlier, and potentially save the lives of thousands of greyhounds.
So far, I have spoken of the plight of fighting dogs and greyhounds. Any Bill that helped to protect those animals would be commendable and have my full support, but this Bill covers many other areas and reaches beyond the protection of dogs. It also provides legally binding protection for non-farmed animals so that their welfare is assured as much as that of farmed animals. Farm welfare legislation allows earlier intervention on grounds of poor welfare, so it is simple common sense to align the welfare of non-farmed animals. The Bill will reduce animal suffering by enabling preventive action to be taken before more suffering occurs, replacing the current outdated legislation that allows only small punishments to be enforced once the act of cruelty has been committed.
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The Bill ensures that animal owners take responsibility and simultaneously helps to make sure that only responsible people are in a position to look after animals in the first place. By increasing from 12 to 16 the minimum age at which a child may buy an animal, and prohibiting giving pets as prizes to unaccompanied children under the age of 16, the Bill prevents irresponsible minors from being responsible for an animal's life.
The Bill will also help open the door for future welfare measures, while deterring persistent offenders by strengthening penalties and eliminating many loopholes in the system. By punishing cruelty and mutilation and enhancing law enforcement for animal welfare offences, we can ensure that an animal's experience of life is of the highest quality.
The outdated language, confusing ambiguities and frustrating loopholes of the 1911 Act will no longer stand in the way of the safety of our animals. Those who neglect their duty of care will not be allowed to own animalsa proposal that merits complete support.
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