Animal Welfare Bill

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The Chairman: In case any hon. Members present have not served on Committees before, I shall explain the procedure, particularly in light of what the hon. Gentleman has just said. In any group of amendments, only the lead amendment is formally moved, so there is no question of withdrawing the others. Members will notice that the next group of amendments consists of one that relates to clause 1 and one— amendment No. 72—that relates to clause 10. If Mr. Wiggin or any other hon. Member wanted to move that grouped amendment, he would need to notify the Chair. It would be debated now, but moved formally when it was reached in the process of discussing the Bill.

I hope that that is clear. I do not wish hon. Members to miss opportunities, and if anybody wants to move an amendment that is not called as part of a group, they must notify the Chair—either myself or Mrs. Humble—and we will make a decision as to whether or not it is proper to move that amendment.

Bill Wiggin: I beg to move amendment No. 104, in clause 1, page 1, line 7, leave out 'The appropriate national authority' and insert 'The Secretary of State'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 72, in clause 10, page 5, line 16, leave out from 'The' to 'thinks' in line 17 and insert

    'Secretary of State may by regulation make such provision as he'.

Bill Wiggin: This is a more thorny subject. In moving the amendment, I seek to ensure that the law is applied consistently across England and Wales. Do we really want a situation to arise whereby the Secretary of State in England and the National Assembly for Wales create different regulations to fulfil the duties set out under subsection (3)(a), (b) and (c)? If the Bill is passed in its current form, we might see the Secretary of State and the National Assembly applying different definitions of what constitutes an animal. The Secretary of State and the Welsh Assembly could also duplicate each other's work when seeking to extend the definition of an animal under clause 1. Moreover, as presently drafted, subsection (3)(c) gives the Secretary of State and the National Assembly for Wales powers to amend subsection (2) differently. It is absurd that someone could be criminalised in Wales for an activity deemed criminal there but not in England. If an animal is deemed eligible on a scientific basis to be added to the definition of ''animal'' under subsection (3)(a), I fail to see the logic of the matter having to be determined separately in England and Wales.

We must also consider the impact of the legislation if it is not amended to ensure consistency. What will happen to properties that straddle the English and
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Welsh border, many of which are in my constituency? Which regulations, codes and licensing regimes will they have to follow? The amendment would ensure that such uncertainties did not exist, and would guarantee legal consistency.

Amendment No. 72, which is in the same vein, would prevent the possibility of different sets of laws being in place on each side of the border. As the provisions are designed to enable the creation of regulations to promote animal welfare, we must ask ourselves whether it would be wise to permit the creation of different sets of regulations. That would not only create problems of cost, but present the legal system with a formidable challenge. After regulations have been made, if they are broken it is possible that the offender will be prosecuted in the criminal courts. England and Wales share the same criminal law and criminal courts, and in the event of different regulations applying in each, our legal system will be sorely tested. For example, could a person who had violated a regulation specific to Wales be tried in a court in England, or for that matter in Scotland or Northern Ireland?

Moreover, the Bill makes no mention of how regulations would affect the hundreds of cross-border farms, and which set of regulations the farmers would have to follow. Who would decide? Would the farmers get a choice, or would an arbitrary line be drawn across their land, with English regulations on one side and Welsh on the other? Unless the Bill is amended, we will run the risk of having different standards of animal welfare in England and Wales. Responsible legislators would not permit that to happen.

The Bill does provide for good devolution. It gives a great deal of power to local authorities, pushing that power from the centre to the lowest possible level to allow local people to ensure local animal welfare standards. However, the aspect of devolution in question sets a dangerous problem for us as legislators. Although devolution can deliver genuine benefits, so that local people have a say over what happens to them and their animals, the provision is a bad example of the Government legislating on a principle without thinking about its consequences.

Mr. Bradshaw: The hon. Gentleman was right to acknowledge that the Bill contains provisions applying equally to England and Wales: the main provisions—on unnecessary suffering, fighting, the duty of care and the sale of animals to under-16s, to name but a few—will apply to both countries. Those provisions, which form the basic law on animal welfare and cruelty, will be the same in England and Wales. DEFRA officials have worked carefully and closely with their counterparts in the Welsh Assembly on all aspects of the Bill, and we recognise the desirability of maintaining that uniformity between the two countries.

However, the hon. Gentleman is also right to point out that the Bill provides the National Assembly for Wales with powers to make its own secondary legislation and codes of practice or to extend the definition of an animal. Such provisions are likely in practice to be similar to those made in England, for the
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reason, which he gave last week on Second Reading, that they will have a common scientific base. But he is right: it is not inevitable that Wales and England will always regulate identically.

Amendment No. 104 would prevent the National Assembly for Wales from introducing regulations allowing it to extend the definition of an animal, and amendment No. 72 would prevent it from making any regulations that it thinks fit to promote welfare. The Government believe that the Bill's flexibility is sensible and would allow each Government to introduce regulations or codes that reflect their own priorities and which they believe are fit for purpose. That is consistent with, and in the essence of devolution, and I hope that we would all welcome it.

The main examples that the hon. Gentleman gave would apply to farm animal welfare, which tends to be set at European level anyway, so there would be consistency across borders. However, I am sure that my officials will continue to work with officials in the Welsh Assembly Government on any future regulations and codes. On that basis, I urge him to withdraw the amendment.

Bill Wiggin: The Minister assures me that his officials have worked with the current Welsh Assembly Government. That is very good of them, but it does not tell us anything about what will happen in the future. I am interested to know what the Welsh Assembly Government officials involved in those discussions said they wanted to change in Wales that we would be unlikely to change in England. What will happen there that will be different from what happens here? I understand that if something is wrong, cruel and unfair to an animal and breaches the duty of care, it should be universally banned. I have grave reservations about the Minister's answers, but then he might put me right on what the Welsh Assembly Government want to change and the Committee could make a decision based on that.

The Minister is also wrong about cross-border farms. Of course the majority of animals in cross-border farms will be farm animals, but most farmers, particularly sheep farmers, have dogs, which do not constitute farm animals. They will be protected by the Bill, and their welfare is fundamental. If a sheep farmer has a holding on both sides of the border, the chances are that his dog will cross back and forth, just as the farmer does. I agree with the Minister on the advantages of devolution, but the argument does not cut much ice with me in that specific case, which is not the right use of devolutionary legislation. The Government have included the provision because they want to tick the box and say, ''We have given more powers to the Welsh Assembly Government.'' However, it is not the sort of power that I believe the Welsh Assembly Government are asking for, nor is it the sort of power that will strengthen the case for animal welfare throughout the UK. He has the opportunity to help me on the matter. I feel that the provision is well intentioned but erroneous.

The Chairman: Does the Minister wish to respond?
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Mr. Bradshaw: I am happy to respond. I am advised by my officials that Welsh officials did not give any examples of the type that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, but they did make it clear that they wanted the power and the flexibility. For argument's sake, it is not inconceivable—although I should not consider it desirable—that the Welsh Assembly might reach a different view from those of the equivalent authorities in Scotland or England on the tail docking of dogs, which we shall perhaps discuss later today.

Bill Wiggin: If that is the case and a person takes their dog to have its tail docked in Wales, where it might not be illegal, when in England it is, how will it be possible to prosecute those sorts of cases? Every time a person is caught with a dog with a docked tail that person can say, ''I went to holiday in Wales, had a wonderful time and the dog was docked there.'' That is why I feel that that is an unnecessary part of the Bill.

11.15 am

If I were in the Welsh Assembly Government, I would not want the law to be particularly different. I would want the efforts of the whole of the United Kingdom law-making machine to produce the best possible animal welfare legislation, and would not necessarily want that law to be different across the border. It is therefore important that the Minister bears that point in mind.

Given my previous job as shadow Secretary of State for Wales, I have strong feelings about devolution and I do not want those to cloud my feelings about this part of the Bill. However, because of my previous position, I understand why the Welsh Assembly Government would want flexibility. Who does not? I hope, however, that they would also want to deliver the best possible animal welfare legislation. So I will be more relaxed if the Minister can satisfy me on that.

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Prepared 17 January 2006