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My hon. Friend the Member for Putney mentioned custody plus and made the important point that it means that the sentences could be as little as 13 weeks instead of the 51 weeks that the Government have promised.
My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), who has two miniature schnauzers and is a club member, paid tribute to the Shropshire Star. That newspaper is kind enough to publish my press releases from time to time. He called on the Government to tidy up the rules on internet pet sales. That is an important point. He mentioned the sensitive issue of cat flaps and referred to serious cases and the list of animal offenders. That is an important aspect of the Bill because I do not think that it would be practical for pet shop owners to check lists of previous offenders. However, I believe that the Government plan to introduce a list of offenders and we will deal with that in Committee.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) talked about greyhounds and the £350 million in revenue from greyhound racing. He referred to the plight of greyhounds and the number that are put down and abandoned. He made the case for hurrying up with the codes of conduct to safeguard their welfare. He made an excellent speech.
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The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) talked about the duty of care, reasons for ownership and children losing interest in their pets. We have witnessed that with the ninja turtles and fish like Nemo. It was brave of her to say that she was not an animal lover but she made an excellent contribution.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) keeps fighting fisha fascinating creature that can breathe through its mouth[Laughter.] Fish normally breathe through their gills. It lays its eggs in a bubble nest. He talked about the Protection against Cruel Tethering Act 1988 and other measures on which he has worked. He has a tremendous pedigree on animal legislation. He said that he was unhappy about electric collars and pet fairs but entertained us greatly with talk of his dog, Michael, which he clearly adores.
The hon. Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) related a revolting example of a microwaved cat and then unfortunately repeated it. She referred to tail docking, the duty of care and industrial or large-scale pheasant egg production. She will be pleased to know that the number of farms in the UK that do that is down to approximately threeit is certainly in single figures.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) advised Members that they should be ready to return to their pets. He talked about Grandjean the vet and about driving tail docking underground. He made a brave and amusing speech, and he will realise that there is great strength of feeling in the House on tail docking. It is important that we should have a balanced debate, however, and I appreciate what he tried to do. He also talked about the loopholes that allow animal sales on the internet. He then mentioned that he had visited the "Big Brother" house, which was a tremendous aside. However, his important point was about keeping primates as pets.
There have been some extremely helpful contributions to the debate today. The Conservatives agree with the aim of the Animal Welfare Bill, and we will co-operate to bring about its improvement and its enactment. Parts of the Bill are welcome, just as parts of it are most worrying. I suspect that the duty of care has not been absent from the statute book for the past 95 years by accident, but because of the difficulties that it presents. I am pleased that the Bill includes provisions for a duty of care to be placed on those responsible for animals, and I share the belief that we must safeguard the welfare of animals prior to an actual cruelty offence taking place.
As presently drafted, the clauses relating to the promotion of welfare and the duty of care are somewhat ambiguous. These definitions will take time and resources to clarify, unless amended. Anyone who has seen horses standing on wasteland without food, water or shelter, or seen dogs with their fur matted and bones sticking out, will, I hope, want to see these concepts enacted with crystal clear clarity now. This is not only because we value our animals but because we have the support of scientific evidence. We must ensure that responsibility accompanies the concept of a duty of care as it journeys towards becoming law. Consequently, there are matters that we need to resolve.
It is not just the concepts of welfare promotion and duty of care that require clarity and constructive improvement. The other crucial areas that need debate
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are: the role of the RSPCA; the missing regulations which are the codes of conduct that relate to the duty of care; the problems of devolution; the costs of implementation; and certain definitions that could be clearer. We are aware that, in its present form, the role of the RSPCA remains unclear. The Government should have done something about this after the Select Committee highlighted the issue in its report. The organisation's position as both a welfare promotion charity and a prosecutor creates a conflict of interest that needs to be resolved.
I welcome the extra powers that will be given to local authorities, but I am concerned that inadequate central Government funding could lead either to an ineffective service in some areas or to higher council tax bills.
Norman Baker: I want to pick the hon. Gentleman up on his point about the RSPCA. As I understand it, the organisation has been given no new powers under the Bill. Indeed, its representatives have told me specifically that they do not want any. In those circumstances, what is the problem with the way in which the organisation is operating, given that its welfare advocacy and prosecution roles appear to have been working quite well recently?
Bill Wiggin: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The RSPCA has asked not to be given, and has not been given, more powers. It has, however, been given a huge range of offences on which to prosecute. That is the difference, because the Bill will give it a huge opportunity to pursue prosecutions, while at the same time, it will have a vast range of animal welfare jobs that are totally separate from its prosecution role. Those conflicting roles are the problem, rather than what it has done in the past or the question of extra powers. I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that. It is very difficult to go round raising money to fight court cases at the same time as trying to protect sanctuaries.
Mr. Vaizey: May I endorse the point made by my hon. Friend in answer to the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker)? I forgot to mention in my speech a letter that I had received from a constituent who makes precisely that point. There is a debate worth having about the dual role of the RSPCA in campaigning on animal welfare issues and in leading prosecutions.
With regard to devolution, the handing down of secondary legislative powers to the Welsh Assembly might lead to different sets of regulations, codes of practice and licensing regimes operating for England and for Wales. That is unnecessary if we retain the principle of law being driven by scientific evidence. Why
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should we need different laws over the border if the science is irrefutable? That is not what devolution is about. If something is bad for the welfare of an animal or even cruel in England, surely it is just as bad and just as cruel anywhere else in the UK.
The codes of conduct are probably the most glaring absence from the Bill. Because a breach of the code of conduct means a possible prosecution for failing in the duty of care, those codes of conduct are essentially law. We should therefore debate on the Floor of the House the important issues touched on today such as electronic training collars, tail docking, circuses and bird fairs. We should also have free votes on them, and not leave them to be determined at some unspecified date in the future through statutory instruments put before a Committee heavily stacked with Government supporters whose selection was determined by the Whips Office.
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