Animal Welfare Bill


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Bill Wiggin: The Minister made several points. To judge from his closing comments, we are not too far apart on the matter. Failure to recapture animals is tantamount to release, therefore I think that he is wrong in respect of the wild boar. He said that he would issue a code of conduct on the release of animals back into the wild, which is very helpful, and people will be grateful for that. I hope that the code will be issued soon.

We have not completely covered the poisoning of rats, but I think that common sense will prevail.

Mr. Bradshaw: I apologise for not responding to the hon. Gentleman's point about rats. There is a distinction between a type and a species: wild rats are wild, therefore they are not covered by the Bill. Domesticated rats are a different type because they have generally been bred in captivity for many generations. I hope that will help the hon. Gentleman in terms of the definition and the distinction between different types of animals rather than species.

Bill Wiggin: I am grateful for that intervention. When the courts have to decide whether a rat or any other animal is wild they can look at the Minister's comments, which were very helpful. The colour of the rat alone is presumably not enough to decide whether it is wild, but given his assurance about the code of conduct the Minister has satisfied me that he has given much thought to the problems with the definitions which I identified, and his comments are on the record. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3

Responsibility for animals

Bill Wiggin: I beg to move amendment No. 108, in clause 3, page 2, line 9, leave out 'responsible' and insert 'who has accepted responsibility'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 109, in clause 3, page 2, line 9, after 'animal', insert

    '(and any offspring that animal may subsequently have)'.

No. 110, in clause 3, page 2, line 13, at end insert

    'and any offspring that that animal may produce'.

No. 111, in clause 3, page 2, line 13, at end insert

    ', except when responsibility for an animal has been passed onto another person on a temporary basis.'.

 
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    No. 92, in clause 3, page 2, line 16, at end addó

      '(5) For the purposes of this Act, in the event of a person unlawfully taking possession of an animal, he will be treated as being responsible for that animal on a temporary basis, until such time as that the animal is recovered by its lawful owner.'.

    No. 96, in clause 4, page 2, line 26, at end insert

      'as the owner or on a temporary basis,'.

    11.45 am

    Bill Wiggin: We touched on the passing over of responsibility, and the amendment would clarify the situation regarding animals that may enter into someone's care inadvertently by making it explicit in the Bill that a person has to make a conscious choice to accept responsibility for an animal.

    As drafted, the Bill does not refer to the responsibility assigned to a person if an animal enters their land or is born on to it without their knowledge or permission. Many people have expressed concern about the possibility that a person would automatically become responsible for an animal for which they might not want responsibility, and would have all the welfare duties conferred on them under the Bill. That could come about because, under common law, a person acquires a qualified property right on any wild-born animal on his land, and under clause 3(3), the owner of an animal will always be responsible for it. The amendment would ensure that the landowner would not be obliged to care for an animal that could be deemed to have fallen inadvertently under their ownership, if they chose not to.

    Amendment No. 190 would guarantee that the protection under the Bill would cover the offspring of a mother animal that would be covered by the Bill. The Bill makes no provision for newborns. That could leave a loophole. For example, if an owner is responsible for a pregnant animal, under clause 1(2) they are not responsible for the foetus. However, there are no provisions detailing the right of the animal once it is born, and who is responsible for it. We have all heard of unwanted puppies or kittens being put into bags and thrown into rivers, and other horrible stories. The Bill will protect animals by holding the owner of the parent animal to account, as they would be statutorily responsible for the offspring.

    Amendment No. 111 would clarify the contradiction in the clause. Clause 3(1) refers to a person being responsible for an animal,

      ''whether on a permanent or temporary basis.''

    That potentially conflicts with clause 3(3), which states:

      ''For the purposes of this Act, a person who owns an animal shall always be regarded as being a person who is responsible for it.''

    It is unclear whether, when control of an animal is passed temporarily to another person, that person becomes the animal's owner, with the ownership responsibilities conferred by the Bill.

    If that contradiction is not cleared up, a person who has been left in control of an animal on a temporary basis and who has not ensured its welfare, may not always be prosecuted, as they will not be the animal's owner and will not therefore be responsible for it
     
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    under clause 3(3). Moreover, the owner could be prosecuted when he or she had done no direct harm to the animal, and had only passed over control of it in good faith. The amendment would ensure that when control of an animal is given to another person, that person will have legal responsibility under the Bill, despite not having ownership of the animal.

    Amendment No. 92 would close a loophole in the Bill with regard to animal theft. The Bill makes no provision for identifying the persons responsible for an animal once it has been stolen. Under existing theft laws, the theft of pets is treated in a manner not too dissimilar from the way in which the theft of household property such as televisions is handled. It is important that, in those circumstances, the Bill should still apply to protect animals. About one in four pet owners worries about the possibility of theft, and we should legislate to ensure that those responsible for the theft are also responsible for the welfare of the animals that they choose to steal. At what would be a stressful time for a pet owner, it might be some comfort to know that at least the animal would be protected, or that the thief could be prosecuted under the Bill. By making thieves responsible for the animals that they steal, the amendment will make it easier to prosecute them if they harm or damage the animal once they have unlawfully taken possession of it.

    Amendment No. 96 will guarantee that a person who is in control of an animal on a temporary basis can be prosecuted for violating the provisions of the Bill and that the animal's owner, who may not be in control of the animal at that time, will not be prosecuted. Clause 3(3) states that the owner of an animal

      ''shall always be regarded as being a person who is responsible for it.''

    That makes it legally possible for owners to be prosecuted for not preventing harm to their animals, even if they were not in control of the animal at the time of the offence. We know that there are circumstances in which responsibility can be conferred on someone else on a temporary basis, and that it would not be right for the owner to be prosecuted if an offence were committed in such circumstances. The amendment would ensure that those responsible for an offence are the ones who are prosecuted for it so as not to waste precious court time and resources.

    Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): I very much support the points that my hon. Friend has just made, particularly about amendment No. 92, which would close a loophole at a time when an animal may be most at risk. I accept that there might not have been so many regular cases of dogs being kidnapped and pets being taken out of their environment by other people in the past, but unfortunately it is becoming increasingly common. Only before Christmas, there was an incident in the local shopping centre in Wandsworth in which a family pet dog that had been tethered was taken. Fortunately, it was returned in a good state several days later. It would be worth closing that loophole because of such a risk.
     
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    Mr. Bradshaw: I note that amendment No. 108 misconstrues the purposes of subsection (1), which has been included in clause 3 to clarify the fact that responsibility does not necessarily require a permanent relationship between man and animal. One might be considered responsible for an animal even if one's relationship with it is only temporary. That is obviously a necessary clarification. If a vet takes in an animal overnight for treatment or if a boarding establishment takes in an animal for care, their relationship with the animal is certainly only temporary, but I am sure that hon. Members will agree that a vet or a boarding establishment should be considered responsible for meeting the animal's welfare needs while the animal is with them.

    The purpose of amendment No. 108 is to change the scope of responsibility quite fundamentally. Its effect would be to introduce a subjective element into the idea of responsibility. Responsibility can be said to arise only where the person actually accepts it. That would be a significant change to the current position under the Bill in which a person can be considered to have responsibility for an animal even if he did not actually accept it, because any reasonable person would consider that he had responsibility.

    For example, the person who has responsibility for a child who owns an animal is to be considered responsible for the animal. That responsible adult may not actually have accepted responsibility for that animal, although I hope that that will become a less prevalent problem once the effects of clause 9 and the ban on under-16s acquiring animals kick in. Any reasonable person would, however, ultimately consider themselves responsible for the welfare of their child's animal.

    The Bill should reflect that position. If it did not, it would be a defence against the welfare offence or any of the offences that might be created in future regulations simply to say, ''I did not accept responsibility for it.'' That would not be progress. The Bill would have taken a wrong turn if we involved prosecutors in lengthy arguments as they tried to prove that each defendant actually subjectively accepted responsibility of the animal in question.

    Amendments Nos. 109 and 110 would ensure that a person who is responsible for an animal would also always be responsible for its offspring. I agree that that should often be the case, but it would not always be appropriate. Under the Bill, such a person is already responsible for that offspring in all cases in which they should be considered responsible for it. Someone who is responsible for an animal that gives birth to offspring would often be responsible for that offspring either because they own it or because they would be in charge of it. In cases in which it is appropriate, therefore, the offspring is already an animal for which the person is responsible, and there is no need to include such a provision specifically.

    In most instances, therefore, amendments Nos. 109 and 110 would not add anything to what the Bill already provides for. On the other hand, they risk giving responsibility where none would be appropriate because of the possibly very wide use of the word ''subsequently''. It would not make sense, for example,
     
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    to be responsible for the offspring of an animal that one had already sold or given away.

    The same difficulty applies equally to both amendments. The owner cannot always be responsible for offspring that may be produced at any time in the future. The Government believe that the question of whether someone should be considered to be responsible for an animal should be decided separately for each animal. On that basis, the Bill allows for the owner of an animal also to be considered responsible for its offspring, where appropriate, but it does not prescribe that they will necessarily always be responsible.

    I shall explain why amendments Nos. 111 and 92 are unnecessary by clarifying how clause 3 operates. Subsection (3) explains that owning an animal will confer responsibility on the owner. That should not be misunderstood to mean that if one does not own an animal, one is not responsible for it. The other circumstances outlined in clause 3 are not intended to be an exhaustive list, but to highlight the situations that ought always to be considered to be included within an understanding of ''responsibility''.

    It may be that the obligations of an owner who only has temporary responsibility for an animal are less onerous than someone with a longer-term responsibility. However, owners who own animals only on a short-term basis should nevertheless be responsible for those animals while ownership lies with them.

     
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    Prepared 17 January 2006