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Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Does my hon. Friend accept that one danger associated with secondary legislation is that it cannot be amended? Unless Ministers get it right before it even reaches this place, we have only two options: approval or rejection. In many cases, the law of unintended consequences applies even more strongly to regulations than to statute. All too often, the unintended consequence is that the people who are trying to implement, with the best will and with the best of intention, the purpose behind the legislation are damaged.

James Duddridge: My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and I am worried about the degree of scrutiny. Members of the Select Committee have pointed out to me privately that Select Committees in general could be more helpful in examining draft codes and regulations before they go through the legislative process. That said, I defer to my hon. Friend's knowledge of matters of this House.

On animal welfare, there is always a balance to be struck between the benefits to the animal and civil liberties. We have heard the term "nanny state" used several times today. I consider myself something of a libertarian and I believe that people should do as they please. But when there is an animal on one side of the debate and a human being on the other—when the situation is finely balanced and we are having difficulty deciding—I believe that we should side with the interests of the animal, even when the status quo goes the other way. The Government should be slightly bolder on tail docking for cosmetic purposes, for example, even if they intend to be slightly more cautious when considering working dogs. I have tried to engage with this issue and both sides of the argument have their merits, but on balance, in cases involving tail docking for cosmetic purposes we must side with the animal.
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I come to greyhound racing. Alas, Southend does not have a greyhound track, although I am told that it did once. Perhaps I can visit Romford's dog track, as Lady Thatcher once did, although I certainly will not take Boris and Barney with me, as someone from the National Greyhound Racing Club suggested. The NGRC and the British Greyhound Racing Board have done an excellent job—this is where I differ slightly with the hon. Member for Sunderland, North—in developing a code of practice. The real problem lies with the 20-odd unregulated tracks. One of those tracks has recently improved and not all the others are terrible, but most do not have veterinary officers on the premises, so there is a case for greater regulation. One benefit of a phased approach involving secondary legislation is that it puts pressure on the different sectors to make changes and to improve self-regulation. So even if we regulate formally through this House, the base point has moved on through the pressure that is being applied.

Finally, I want to join in the goldfish debate. It is appalling to give any animal as a prize. It matters not whether it is a child or an adult—it is entirely inappropriate.

This is a good enabling Bill and I certainly support it, but it falls short of providing sufficient detail on the secondary legislation that is needed. It will be much better if it is discussed in far greater depth in Committee, and if more detail on secondary legislation is added.

7.27 pm

Mr. Michael Wills (North Swindon) (Lab): Like all other Members, I very much welcome this Bill, which will be as significant in our time as the Protection of Animals Act 1911 was in its time. I welcome the flexible approach that is being taken. It is sensible and practical and allows the law to keep pace with changes not only in science, but in moral sentiment in society.

I want to touch briefly on three issues on which there is an emerging common view, and I hope that the Government will consider crystallising that view as the Bill makes progress through the House. The first issue is the definition of suffering. Everybody accepts that there is a mental component to suffering, and I should be grateful if Ministers reflected, as the Bill makes progress, on whether that definition is as clear as it could be.

The second issue is pets and prizes, which has just emerged—again. Nobody wants unnecessary regulation or an unnecessary extension of state powers, but I am slightly puzzled by Ministers' resistance to the prohibition of giving pets as prizes. Giving pets as prizes is not a fundamental human right that raises questions of principle about the extension of state powers, but it does seem to be at odds with one of the fundamental principles underlying the Bill: respect for the welfare of other sentient beings. Such respect must underpin the acquisition of any companion animals. This is both a practical issue and an issue of principle. Inevitably, the acquisition of a companion animal as a prize—such acquisition will always be casual, because of the element of chance—will not be approached with the same seriousness of intent as a more considered acquisition. The welfare of the animal is obviously less likely to be paramount, so it is also a matter of principle that, if people are serious about animal welfare, they should approach their relationship with animals in a serious manner, and not as part of a game.
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Finally, I turn to the question of the docking of dogs' tails. I shall not spend a lot of time on this matter, as it has been discussed exhaustively already, but the practice cannot be justified in any way, except when it is used for genuine and proven therapeutic purposes. That has not been disputed in this long debate, and I hope that Ministers will take note of the common view in the House about that barbaric practice. I hope that we shall soon see the end of it in this country.

I welcome the genuinely open and consultative approach adopted by Ministers. That has been a model for legislation and I thank the Government for it, on my own behalf and on behalf of all the constituents who have written to me about this matter. I am grateful to Ministers, their officials and all colleagues on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. We are all indebted to them for their hard work in bringing the Bill this far towards the statute book, and I shall certainly be supporting it.

7.30 pm

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): I am delighted to be able to speak in this debate, and I begin by declaring two interests. First, the RSPCA animal hospital is situated in my constituency of Putney. The hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) said that the sanctuary in his constituency had goats. We do not have many goats in Putney, but if we did, I am sure that the RSPCA hospital would take excellent care of them.

The second interest that I should declare is that I own two cats that I got from the RSPCA rehoming service in Southall. When the cats arrived in my house, they realised that they had fallen on their feet—or should I say paws?—and had entered a great home. They are lucky, and most of the time lead a life of rest and relaxation, but there is no doubt that many pets in this country are not so fortunate. The Bill is to be greatly welcomed for the progress in animal welfare that it represents.

The Bill is badly needed. Other speakers have mentioned the RSPCA statistics in respect of animal welfare; the statistic that I find the most worrying tells us that the number of visits by officers rose by about 40 per cent. between 2003 and 2004. In addition, officers are worried about a greater proportion of the animals that they see on those visits. That is a definite problem, and we need to tackle it.

I have three broad areas of concern that I want to bring to the House's attention, and which I hope will be addressed in Committee. The first has to do with the use of secondary legislation, about which other contributors have spoken already. The second problem is that the Bill needs to be made wider in its application, and the third has to do with the proposed sanctions against people who are found guilty of animal welfare offences.

We have heard that the Bill is an enabling measure, and I accept that things can change over time and that legislation needs to be flexible as a result. Ninety-five years have elapsed since the last Bill dealing with animal welfare, and unfortunately it may be that another 95 years will go by before we revisit the matter. However, concern has been expressed in the debate that the proposals place great reliance on secondary
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legislation, so it is incumbent on the Government to make that secondary legislation, and the details that underpin it, very clear.

The regulatory impact assessment is very short on detail. We do not know whether the document to be published will be full and comprehensive, or whether other elements will be introduced at a later stage. We are also lacking information about the codes of practice and other details, with the result that the Bill is like a Christmas tree without decorations. I want to agree with the decorations that will be put on it, but it would be nice if we had a clearer idea of what they are likely to be before we are asked to ratify their use.

Moreover, I share the concerns that have been expressed about how the secondary legislation will be adopted in the future, given that we have not been able to see the substance of the first tranche of that legislation. I hope that the Minister will give the House some assurances about the procedures that will be used. There needs to be strong consultation before proposals are developed into statutory instruments. In addition, those instruments—whether they be regulatory, or take the form of codes of practice—should be subject to positive resolution achieved through the affirmative procedure.

Such an approach is not especially unusual. The codes of practice in section 3 of the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968 were subject to positive resolution, and the Bill already suggests that regulations should be handled in a similar manner. With this Bill, therefore, I urge the Government to adopt the same approach with regard to statutory instruments introducing codes of practice.

As I said, my second reservation about the Bill has to do with the breadth of its application, and the additional offences that it introduces in respect of cruelty to animals and of animal fighting. I believe that new offences should be introduced to cover the making, distribution and possession of images of animal cruelty and of bestiality for which there can be no lawful authority or excuse. That is the approach adopted in respect of child pornography.

I know that the Government responded to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee by saying that they did not want to go down that road because there was no guarantee that the animal welfare offences captured in such images were being committed in Britain. However, that is not seen as a hindrance to taking strong action against child pornography, and I urge the Government to take the same approach with videos of animal cruelty.

The RSPCA will confirm that it is very difficult to prosecute people who organise animal fights, so we should give ourselves a chance to take as much action as possible against them. If the law makes it hard to prosecute the main offence, we should at least strengthen our ability to prosecute on a secondary level. That is my second suggestion.

My third suggestion—and perhaps it is the most emotive for me as an MP—is that we should strengthen the sanctions proposed in the Bill. The Bill is a great step forward, in that it will enable us to prevent cruelty and prosecute it more thoroughly. The original 1911 Act focused on the prosecution and punishment of people convicted of cruelty, whereas this measure focuses more
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on prevention. That is long overdue, and I welcome it very much, but I am concerned about the practical effect of the sanctions that the Bill introduces.

I hope that the Minister, when he sums up, will correct me if I have misunderstood the proposals. At present magistrates can give custodial sentences of up to six months to people convicted of animal cruelty, yet the Bill's apparent increase of that sentence to as much as 51 weeks' imprisonment is affected by the custody plus provisions in the Criminal Justice Act 2003. As a result, the term "imprisonment" is somewhat misleading, and the custodial sentence handed out to people will amount to just 13 weeks. That is about half the length of sentence that is available under the current provisions for people convicted of animal cruelty offences. That really concerns me, not only because it sends out a very bad message about how our society wants to punish people convicted of offences against animals, but because it is just plain wrong when seen in the context of the sanctions available for other crimes. For example, people convicted of criminal damage can be referred to the Crown Court, where a penalty much harder than the 13 weeks available under custody plus can be handed down.

To me, it seems ludicrous that a person who damages an inanimate object—for example, by burning down a large building—can receive a custodial sentence of two or three years, when a person who commits horrific acts of cruelty against many animals over a long period of time cannot be punished with anything more severe than a sentence of 13 weeks. That is what the Bill provides, and the sentence may even be reduced or replaced with a community service order.

The Government have recognised that different levels of offence should be considered in connection with manslaughter and murder—or homicide, as we may end up calling it. In the same way, they should recognise that different degrees of cruelty are involved in the way that people act in relation to animals. The law should not be clipped to prevent harsh sentences being given to those who commit the very worst offences of animal cruelty.

I welcome the Bill, which is a big step forward. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) talked about dumb animals, but the science we have today suggests that animals are not necessarily dumb. We know that chimpanzees have 98 per cent. of the DNA of humans. It may never be possible to train a marsupial to do quadratic equations—although if we could we would, depending on where we lived in the world, say "Eureka!" or "Carumba!"—but we should take care of animals, whether dumb or smart. We need sanctions to use against people who do not look after animals, and if we have harsh penalties for that it will say something about our society. I hope that the Minister will be able to address some of my concerns.

7.40 pm

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