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Mr. Gray: Has my hon. Friend noticed a worrying aspect of this evening's debate, which is that most Members who have supported the structure of the Bill have done so because they believe that the outcome of debate on a statutory instrument will be that which they seek, whether the abolition of tail docking or pet fairs? Surely the principle of parliamentary democracy is that debate in a Statutory Instrument Committee might go one way or the other. Presuming that the debate will necessarily result in the abolition of such practices is a fundamental abnegation of parliamentary democracy.
Bill Wiggin: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We all know, from the number of letters that we receive, how much these matters concern our constituents. Even if we are going to say something unpopular, we should at least be able to debate it in a creative and constructive way. We all know that such Committees do not provide much opportunity to improve on the Government's intentions, which is a great shame.
It is also therefore a shame that such an important part of the Bill is taken on trust. Nobody, regardless of his or her position and prejudices, would want such contentious and divisive matters dealt with in this manner. Such matters of morality and conscience should be resolved on the Floor of the House. After all, we must remember that the duty of care applies to our legislative process as much as it does to our pets and animals.
A little over a year ago, I was a member of the Select Committee that gave the earlier draft of this Bill pre-legislative scrutiny, and I am saddened that the current version does not contain some of its important recommendations, including broadening the definition of "protected animal" to include octopuses and other cephalopods, and the separate offence of abandonment. The warning order or "statutory improvement notice", which gives the owner of an animal the chance to correct any care issues before a case needs to be formed against him or her, is an opportunity missed in the Bill. If we had seen the missing codes of conduct, which we are expected to agree on trust, the position would be clearer.
Needless cruelty is a concept that revolts all civilised people. I hope that the Minister will be willing to adapt the Bill if we can convince him of the necessity of doing
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so. I have drafted my amendments with the best will in the world. I look forward to discussing their merits, and I hope that the Minister will not adopt an entrenched position. I have noticed that Ministers are reluctant to introduce even their own amendments if a Bill has received pre-legislative scrutiny. I took part in that pre- legislative scrutiny, and I want this duty of care to become law as quickly as possible. Like my colleagues, I care passionately about animal welfare, and that is why I am delighted to be here to see this Bill take further shape.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): I thank Members on both sides of the House for what has been an excellent debate. It was at all times educative, sometimes serious and sometimes entertaining. I have learned a lot, and Members have given me plenty of food for thought to take away to Committee, in which I hope that the debate between the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and her hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) on tail docking might continue.
As the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) said, and as one or two other Members pointed out, this is not a Christmas tree Bill as generally understood. It is not a Bill on which either non-governmental organisations or hon. Members are encouraged to hang their pet issue. Much of the debate about the Bill has centred on its nature and on whether it is too permissive in terms of enabling legislation. I will deal with that in a moment. It is important to emphasise, however, that although the debate has focused on a number of separate issues, the Bill is not primarily about banning practices; it is essentially about improving the welfare of animals. The Government have decided that prohibition is the best option in a few instancespet sales to children, for instance, and mutilationbut the introduction of a duty of care and a welfare offence represents the real step forward.
I shall try to deal with the points that have been raised, but if I forget one or two Members I shall write to them. There was, for example, the issue of the definition of "animal". It was inevitable that there would be a debate about where the line should be drawn. There will always be those who want it to be drawn that little bit further to include cephalopods and crustaceans and those who are happy with the proposals as they stand, accepting the Government's belief that there is not yet enough scientific evidence to support their inclusion. What is important is that we have made clear that we are prepared to listen to Members' views in Committee, and will always be mindful of new evidence. According to strong advice that I am currently receiving, however, only one country in the world has included cephalopods in its animal welfare legislation.
There is still a great deal of scientific uncertainty, and as the Bill will introduce fairly wide powers, sanctions and punishment, as well as a burden of proof, we
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thought that we should act according to science rather thanin this instancethe precautionary principle. As I have said, however, we have power to extend the definition of "animal" by the appropriate national authority if we think it necessary.
Discussing suffering, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald expressed a fear that the words "proportionate to the purpose" in clause 4(3)(d) might constitute a get-out. Let me try to reassure her. That is just one factor to which a court will be invited to have regard in determining whether suffering is unnecessary: it is not a get-out, or an absolute defence. Other factorsfor example, whether suffering could be reasonably avoidedmust be taken into account. There are instances in which we feel that the wording is necessary. For example, a police horse used for riot control may or may not be put in danger to protect the police. We are satisfied that the wording constitutes a significant strengthening of the current requirement. The status quo provides that beating in the context cited by the right hon. Lady is illegal only if unnecessary suffering can be proved; the Bill goes a great deal further.
A number of Members raised the issue of mental as opposed to physical suffering. We are satisfied that the definition in the Bill encompasses mental as well as physical suffering, but, again, I shall be happy to listen to Members' views in Committee.
The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald, along with a number of other Members, stressed the importance of educating people in good care for animals. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) pointed out, codes of good practice will be issued relating to different types of animal, and will be made available at the point of purchase. They will form the basis of any subsequent action taken under the provision for a welfare offence.
I hope that the Bill will enable us to achieve a step change in education on good practice. Such education is not readily available in relation to many species, although Sweden, whose animal welfare legislation is similar to that in the Bill, has produced codes of good practice applying to the vast majority of pets that are available on the market. We hope to do the same.
On the fighting offence, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) expressed concern about our having removed from the Bill the reference to having equipment for use in, and keeping a place for, a fight. We got rid of that wording because we wanted a clear and simple Bill, in line with the Government's better regulation agenda. We are confident that the phrase that remains in the Bill
should, and will be, interpreted widely by the courts. It covers any arrangement relating to an animal fight, including keeping premises or equipment for fighting, planning a fight, transporting animals, and so forth. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.
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Norman Baker: Not entirely, but I am glad that the Minister has picked up on this point. It is perfectly possible for someone entirely unconnected with the arranging of a fight to appear at a fight and video it. That person, who has not been involved in making arrangements for an animal fight or in carrying them out, would not be covered by the new wording.
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