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Session 2005 - 06
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Standing Committee Debates
Animal Welfare Bill

Animal Welfare Bill




 
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Standing Committee A

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen:

Mr. Roger Gale, †Mrs. Joan Humble

†Baker, Norman (Lewes) (LD)
†Bradshaw, Mr. Ben (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)
†Cunningham, Tony (Workington) (Lab)
†Drew, Mr. David (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op)
†Greening, Justine (Putney) (Con)
†Griffith, Nia (Llanelli) (Lab)
†Hollobone, Mr. Philip (Kettering) (Con)
†Keeley, Barbara (Worsley) (Lab)
†Kidney, Mr. David (Stafford) (Lab)
†McIsaac, Shona (Cleethorpes) (Lab)
†Mulholland, Greg (Leeds, North-West) (LD)
†Paice, Mr. James (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con)
†Rosindell, Andrew (Romford) (Con)
†Smith, Ms Angela C. (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab)
†Snelgrove, Anne (South Swindon) (Lab)
†Tipping, Paddy (Sherwood) (Lab)
†Wiggin, Bill (Leominster) (Con)
Geoffrey Farrar, Jenny McCullough, Committee Clerks

† attended the Committee


 
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Thursday 19 January 2006
(Morning)

[Mrs. Joan Humble in the Chair]

Animal Welfare Bill

Clause 7

Fighting etc

9 am

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): I beg to move amendment No. 164, in clause 7, page 4, line 3, after ‘arranges’, insert ‘or knowingly publicises’.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 86, in clause 7, page 4, line 3, at end insert—

      ‘(aa)   distributes promotional material for an animal fight;

      (ab)   willingly accepts promotional material for an animal fight;’.

No. 165, in clause 7, page 4, line 5, at end insert—

      ‘(ba)   knowingly participates in the publicising of an animal fight;’.

Bill Wiggin: Good morning, Mrs. Humble. How nice it is to be back here under your chairmanship.

The amendment seeks to tighten up the proposals to deal with those involved in animal fights. My belief, which is shared by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and, as we heard on Second Reading, by many hon. Members, is that those who have any involvement in the organisation of animal fights must be subject to powers of prosecution under this Bill. It goes without saying that someone publicising an animal fight is playing a significant role in its arrangement and organisation. They are also enticing others to break the law. This practice must be stopped: the present draft does not deal with these offenders, but this amendment will.

Amendment No. 86 also seeks to tighten the proposals to deal with those responsible for the organisation of animal fights. Although the present draft of the Bill contains provisions to prosecute someone who is responsible for arranging an animal fight, it does not address the promotion of such fights. Some people will not have arranged for an animal fight to take place, but will have informed others about it. I feel that those who promote animal fights, whether through word of mouth or, as is common these days, through text messaging and the internet, should be subject to punishment under these laws. After all, a person who promotes an animal fight is causing as much damage as those who arrange it and should be subject to the same law.

Animal fights are among the most cruel and barbaric acts to which we can subject our animals. Amendment No. 165 seeks to make publicising such fights an offence akin to causing an animal unnecessary suffering. There is no separate offence of
 
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publicising an animal fight in this Bill and, as I said before, it is a notable absence. Publicising animal fights can only encourage those people who are not repulsed by the idea to take part and commit an offence. It must be stopped. I hope that the Government will accept the amendment.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): Welcome back to the chair, Mrs Humble. These amendments and amendments Nos. 9, 10 and 11, which we will come to later, seek to take clause 7 back towards the draft published in July 2004, which listed a series of specific acts related to animal fighting that were to be offences. Since that draft was published, that list has been removed to simplify the Bill. There is now a more general offence in subsection (1)(b) if someone

    “knowingly participates in . . . arrangements for an animal fight”.

I should like to say a few words on the drafting of clause 7 as a whole. These comments will apply equally to the later group of amendments. I understand why hon. Members might have concerns about this drafting because it moves away from the current law on animal fighting, which is very specific as to the activities that constitute offences. The use of a general offence is novel to enforcers of animal welfare law and naturally there are concerns that the drafting should be wide enough to be capable of encompassing all the activities that the previous legislation covered.

The Government share the hon. Gentleman’s concern to ensure that all forms of animal fighting and preparatory or associated activities are outlawed by the Bill. The Government consider animal fighting an abhorrent activity and we do not want the Bill to introduce any loopholes that allow the activity to continue in this country in any shape or form. I should like to reassure hon. Members of our view that the phrase

    “making or carrying out arrangements”

is capable of a very wide meaning, not just planning in the prospective sense but any form of culpable involvement in fighting where a person has participated or carried out arrangements for a fight. That could include activities such as distributing promotional material or publicising a fight. In other words, participating in such activities is already envisaged as being covered by subsection (1)(b).

Proposed subsection (1)(ab) in amendment No. 86 would create an offence of willingly accepting promotional material for an animal fight. With respect to the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin), I do not think that we should aim to cover that. Let us say that a person is handed a flier in their local pub, puts it in their pocket without thinking, and may have no intention of attending the fight being advertised. We cannot consider that to be as reprehensible as the actions of a person who attends the fight and makes a bet on it. We have probably all accepted promotional material simply when walking down the street, usually without giving it a second thought. To criminalise that would be disproportionate to the evil that we are trying to get at. The amendment goes a little too far, as
 
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possession of promotional material does not imply an intention to get involved in the activity being promoted.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): I understand the point that the Minister is making, and I agree that although the intention of the amendment is right, the definition is wide and would have the consequence that he has described. However, does he accept that there is a legitimate question as to whether there should be an offence for someone who accepts promotional material in another way—for instance, displaying a poster in a shop window or knowingly allowing a billboard to be used for such a purpose? That would be different from the situation that he correctly described.

Mr. Bradshaw: I accept that point, and I think that it is covered in the clause. However, participation in distributing promotional material, or publicising a fight—this addresses the point that the hon. Gentleman just raised—are activities covered by the Bill.

I am grateful to hon. Members for proposing the amendments, as they have highlighted one possible oversight in subsection (1)(b). I understand their concern that the subsection may exclude cases in which the involvement of a second person cannot be proved. The term “participates” necessarily implies the involvement of another. To that extent, I take the point that the current wording of the subsection may not be sufficiently clear to achieve our policy aim. I would like further to consider whether clarification of the clause is required.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): One of my concerns is about people who put material on the internet either to advertise a fight that is about to be organised or to show it graphically. Will my hon. Friend assure me that there are controls to deal with such people and that they can be apprehended?

Mr. Bradshaw: I believe that to be the case. We will come to issues of the internet and videoing a little later.

Having expressed a desire to clarify the issue of participation, I believe that the general approach of subsection (1)(b) is correct. As we have discussed, returning to the original draft of the clause, in a list format, would be prejudicial to prosecutors seeking a conviction for activities not explicitly mentioned. A more general clause can capture a broader range of activities that may not share all the characteristics of those mentioned in the Protection of Animals Act 1911. A specific list runs the risk of being incomplete, and inevitably fails to take account of new developments. The Bill is drafted in accordance with modern practices: where a general, more succinct formulation is adequate, it should be preferred to a specific and unwieldy list of activities, which may become out of date.

I am grateful to hon. Members for raising the point, and if they agree not to press the amendments, I will contact them before Report with a considered view of the Government’s position on ensuring that someone making or carrying out arrangements for an animal fight has committed an offence, even when there is no
 
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evidence of the involvement of others. On that basis, I urge the hon. Member for Leominster to withdraw the amendment.

Bill Wiggin: I understand why the Minister has sought to simplify the Bill, and his point about lists. There is only a cigarette paper’s difference between us on the point in question, so we are down to the devil in the detail. I was concerned that somebody might send the Minister a text message saying “Dear Ben, there is an animal fight at 7.30 at Bradshaw’s farm; don’t go there, it is disgusting, or perhaps you would like to picket outside.” That is tantamount to advertising, but in a negative way and it is a trick that people might perform to promote that sort of violent, evil activity. People ought to be prosecutable for that, as well.

I am grateful for the Minister’s offer to go away and think about how he is going to finalise the Bill, so I am more than happy to withdraw my amendment. I look forward to hearing from him about how he is dealing with the matter. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill Wiggin: I beg to move amendment No. 125, in clause 7, page 4, line 4, leave out from ‘for’ to end of line 5 and insert ‘the fighting of animals’.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 126, in clause 7, page 4, line 12, leave out from ‘which’ to first ‘with’ in line 13 and insert

    ‘the fighting of animals takes place.’.

No. 127, in clause 7, page 4, line 14, at end add—

    ‘(4)   In subsection (3), “the fighting of animals” means the placing of a protected animal’.

Bill Wiggin: These probing amendments are intended to obtain reassurances from the Government about specific aspects of the animal fighting offence. The drafting of the Bill has led to some expressing concerns to me that, although the clause is strong on combating animal fights when they are about to take place or are taking place, it is weak on legislating against those who are preparing for the fighting of animals. We know that people who engage in animal fighting sometimes train their animals vigorously for weeks and months before they fight. Clearly, if there is evidence to suggest that an animal is being used, or is being trained to be used, for fighting, we should be able to intervene in the animal’s interest at the earliest opportunity. That very sentiment about intervening early is what is behind the duty of care. The amendments are worded to cover the general scope of the fighting of animals and are designed to fulfil the important aim of stopping all activities connected with the preparation for animal fighting.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): I welcome you to the dawn shift of the Committee, Mrs. Humble.

The amendments are vital. I recognise that the hon. Member for Leominster says that they are probing amendments. The clause refers to “an animal fight”. According to my reading, a magistrates court could deem that to be a specific fight. I would like to see that
 
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term expanded on or changed in this clause so that we have a more general term. The whole clause needs to be considered, rather than just line 4, as in the amendment. Rather than saying, “arranges an animal fight”, the Bill should say, “arranges the fighting of animals”. As has been said, there is quite a difference and the wording is important. Keeping the term “an animal fight” might make enforcement slightly more difficult. I hope that the Minister will go away and ask his officials and those who draft these words to consider the clause. This is serious. It is not just a case of a simple probing amendment. I would like to see something come forward on Report from the Government to change the clause in that respect.

Mr. Bradshaw: Due to concerns that were expressed earlier in the Bill’s drafting, we have already done that. I seek to reassure both my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Leominster that this is about how we generally draft in today’s world. Where there is a general and more succinct formulation that is believed to be adequate, that is preferred. The term “an animal fight” is another example of the modern drafting practice that is intended to capture both the singular and the plural. My officials have already been back to parliamentary counsel to seek their assurance on this point. They are confident that the proposed alternatives make no difference to the substance of the clause.

The term “an animal fight” does not mean that the prosecutors have necessarily got to establish the taking place of a particular event, whether in the past or the future. To prove participation in arranging an animal fight, one would have to prove, for example, only that a person had agreed with another that they would fight their dogs. Someone might overhear their conversation and report it, but one would not have to prove that the persons had agreed to fight their dogs in the shed behind the Queen’s Arms on 29 February. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment.

9.15 am

Bill Wiggin: I said that the amendment was a probing one. I am sorry that the Government have had to go to the drafting team to ensure we have got it right, but the matter is important enough to justify that sort of due diligence. I hope that the Minister’s advice is right; I am not a professional draftsman myself. In the spirit of consensus and co-operation and to further the progress of the Bill, I shall take the Minister at his word and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Norman Baker: I beg to move amendment No. 9, in clause 7, page 4, line 9, at end insert—

      ‘(e)   receives money for admission to a place which is being used for an animal fight.’.


 
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The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 10, in clause 7, page 4, line 9, at end insert—

      ‘(e)   keeps or trains an animal for the purpose of an animal fight.’.

No. 11, in clause 7, page 4, line 9, at end insert—

      ‘(e)   has in his possession anything capable of being used in connection with an animal fight with a view to its being so used.’.

Norman Baker: May I just accept the point that the Minister made in his earlier comments? The rationale behind the amendment is as he describes, so the question is whether a specific list or a more general approach is to be preferred. There is an argument for a more general approach, which I am happy to accept. Over the years, we have seen legislation that is deemed to be out of date and inappropriate because it relies on a specific list. Telephone tapping, for example was covered by legislation, but it did not pick up bugging, and the invasion of privacy was the same. A general approach, rather than a specific list, is to be welcomed.

One has, therefore, to be very sure that the general description used is adequate to cover all the offences that we want covered. There is no difference of view between members of the Committee on what we should do: we must clamp down firmly on this disgusting activity. We do not want any loopholes. I am grateful that the Minister will reconsider subsection (1)(b), which he is relying on. It is a very short provision—barely one sentence—so we have to make sure it is absolutely right.

I ask the Minister for his assurance, which I think he will be prepared to give, that amendments Nos. 9 and 10 are covered by subsection (1)(b). I hope that they are, but it would be useful to have it on record. Amendment No. 9 probably is covered. Amendment No. 10 partly relates to our previous discussion. However, I am not entirely happy that the provisions of amendment No. 11 are covered. The Minister knows that the possession of fighting equipment is currently an offence, for example, in relation to cock fighting under the Cockfighting Act 1952. That Act will be repealed by the Bill so the safeguard will go. I am keen to ensure that the possession of equipment, whether spurs for cock fighting or breaking sticks for dog fighting, will be picked up by the general description in subsection (1)(b). Effectively I am trying to create a “going equipped” clause. According to the wording of amendment No. 11, it would not just be a question of possessing such material, but a question of possessing it

    “with a view to its being so used”.

There would be a requirement to demonstrate the purpose of holding such material because some of it could be held for legitimate purposes, and I would not want to catch that. I am not convinced that the possession of such material is covered by subsection (1)(b), and I ask for the Minister’s reassurance about that.

Mr. Drew: I want to follow up the hon. Gentleman’s points; I would like to see clarity. From memory, I think that a number of the points raised in the
 
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amendments were in the draft Bill, and I would like to ask the Minister on what grounds the offences in question were not included in this Bill.

I am sure that hon. Members will correct me if I am wrong, but I recall that the Select Committee considered whether the intention to hold a fight was as serious as holding a fight. The issue exercised us greatly. Obviously, terminology to deal with offences such as keeping or training an animal for the purpose of a fight, receiving money, which could, of course, be taken in advance of a fight, and so on are important because of the nature of this activity and those who indulge in it. They are very organised, and it is possible that they may not necessarily carry out fights, for all sorts of reasons, but still be guilty of, for example, training dogs to be able and ready to fight. As far as the Select Committee was concerned, that certainly was worthy of prosecution.

How would prosecution occur if there are not grounds in the Bill to allow the authorities to pursue it? Will the Minister explain the difference between this Bill and the draft Bill, which was more extensive, and why the changes were made?

Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), particularly those on amendment No. 11. Like him, I refer to what the Minister said about the scope of subsection (1)(b). I do not believe that it covers the offence of possessing equipment; indeed, the RSPCA consulted its lawyers and is not confident that it is covered.

I need not go into the horrors of animal fighting or persuade anybody on this Committee that the offence of fighting is, as the Minister said, abhorrent. I shall confine my comments to pointing out that amendment No. 11, which deals with the possession of equipment, may not stand in a court of law; it is not precise enough to be included in the Bill. I ask the Minister to comment on it and to consider tabling an amendment containing a new subsection on Report.

Mr. Bradshaw: To respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), I go back to what I said about the earlier group of amendments and the general philosophy behind the change. Contrary to what has been said about widening the scope of the law, the Bill could, in fact, limit it if it were more specific. That point has been touched on several times in this Committee. The Government would not try to simplify the Bill in this way if we felt that we were ruling out offences that we wanted to cover. Our legal advisers stated strongly that the Bill deals with the concerns expressed by the RSPCA and others. It covers someone who knowingly participates in arrangements for an animal fight, someone who receives money for admission to a place which is being used for an animal fight, someone who keeps or trains an animal for the purpose of an animal fight or someone who keeps equipment for use in animal fight activities. We are strongly advised that all those things fall within the scope of subsection (1)(b).


 
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Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): I am listening to the Minister with interest and am grateful to him for giving way. Clearly, there is some legal doubt. If the RSPCA lawyers say that there is a difficulty with the wording of the Bill but the Government lawyers say that there is not, surely the precautionary principle would require us to try to remove the doubt, as there is no doubt that the people who will be prosecuted under this offence are, generally, organised criminals rather than members of the public. Therefore, they are likely to be aware of any loopholes in the law, and able to exploit them.

Mr. Bradshaw: I do not agree that there are loopholes in the clause. The issue of keeping equipment was raised at rather more length by the hon. Member for Lewes. In the absence of evidence for the equipment’s lawful purpose, the act of keeping equipment is strong evidence of an arrangement for a fight. The hon. Gentleman gave the example of a pub landlord who had animal fighting equipment on his or her wall. We should want to catch the person who held the equipment not because they thought that it was a curiosity, but because they intended to use or had used it for a fight.

The simplification of the clause will improve the Bill and broaden its scope to cover the activities about which hon. Members are concerned. As I said in my response to the earlier group of amendments, we accept that there may be a problem with the wording about participation. I shall return to hon. Members on Report with what we hope will be a solution to that.

Norman Baker: I am grateful to the Minister for his response. My fears have not been entirely allayed by his response to amendment No. 11. The pub landlord in the example would not be prosecuted or successfully prosecutable under my amendment, because it would require motive as well as possession to be demonstrated. However, the sensible action at this stage is to withdraw the amendment and see whether the clause’s new wording, with which the Minister will return on Report, allays my fears about this and earlier matters. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Chairman: Before we move to the next group of amendments, may I take this opportunity to remind Members who wish to contribute to the discussion to rise early in order to catch my eye? I shall then call them in the debate.

Norman Baker: I beg to move amendment No. 12, in clause 7, page 4, line 10, leave out

    ‘he is present at an animal fight’

and insert—

      (a)   present at an animal fight, or at an activity where there is a reasonable likelihood of such a fight taking place;

      (b)   makes a recording of an animal fight;

      (c)   has in his possession or distributes—

      (i)   a recording of an animal fight

      (ii)   a copy of such a recording, or

      (iii)   material from such a recording; or

      (d)   publishes material from a recording of an animal fight.’.


 
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