Animal Welfare Bill

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

No. 166, in clause 7, page 4, line 10, leave out

    ‘he is present at an animal fight’

and insert—

      ‘(a)   he is present at an animal fight;

      (b)   he makes a recording of an animal fight;

      (c)   he 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.’.

No. 87, in clause 7, page 4, line 11, at end insert—

    ‘(2A)   A person commits an offence if, without lawful authority or excuse, he—

      (a)   produces a visual record of an animal fight,

      (b)   is in possession of a visual record of an animal fight, or

      (c)   distributes a visual record of an animal fight.’.

No. 167, in clause 7, page 4, line 14, at end add

    ‘and “recording” means a record from which visual images or sounds may, by any means, be reproduced.’.

No. 13, in clause 7, page 4, line 14, at end add—

    ‘(4)   For the purposes of this section “recording” means a record from which visual images or sounds may, by any means, be reproduced.’.

No. 118, in clause 20, page 11, line 26, after ‘8’, insert

    ‘[Recordings of prohibited conduct],’.

No. 119, in clause 28, page 13, line 26, after ‘7’, insert

    ‘or [Recordings of prohibited conduct]’.

No. 120, in clause 29, page 14, line 8, after ‘8’, insert

    ‘or [Recordings of prohibited conduct],’.

No. 121, in clause 30, page 15, line 36, after ‘8’, insert

    ‘section [Recordings of prohibited conduct](1)(a),’.

No. 122, in clause 36, page 19, line 2, after ‘7’, insert

    ‘or section [Recordings of prohibited conduct](1)(a),’.

No. 37, in clause 36, page 19, line 18, at end insert ‘including recording equipment’.

No. 185, in clause 36, page 19, line 18, at end insert

    ‘or in arranging, publicising, recording or distributing a recording of, an animal fight.’.

No. 123, in clause 36, page 19, line 18, at end insert—

      ‘(e)   in the case of conviction for an offence under section [Recordings of prohibited conduct](1)(a), to anything used, designed or adapted for making a recording.’.

New clause 5—Recordings of prohibited conduct—

    ‘(1)   A person commits an offence if, without lawful authority or excuse, he—

      (a)   makes a recording of prohibited conduct;

      (b)   has in his possession or distributes—

      (i)   a recording of prohibited conduct,

      (ii)   a copy of such a recording, or

      (iii)   material from such a recording; or

      (c)   publishes material from a recording of prohibited conduct.

    (2)   For the purposes of subsection (1)(b) and (c), “prohibited conduct” means—

      (a)   conduct, wherever it takes place, which contravenes (or would if taking place in England and Wales contravene) section 4(1);

      (b)   a prohibited procedure within the meaning of section 5(3), wherever carried out, other than in circumstances specified in regulations made under section 5(4) as regards section 5(1);

      (c)   an animal fight within the meaning of section 7(3), wherever it takes place; or

      (d)   an act, wherever it takes place, which contravenes (or would if taking place in England and Wales contravene) section 69(1) or (2) of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 (intercourse with an animal).

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    (3)   For the purposes of subsection (1)(a), “prohibited conduct” means conduct specified in subsection (2)(a) to (d) which takes place in England and Wales.

    (4)   A person who has matter in his possession through his use of a computer in England and Wales commits an offence under subsection (1)(b) notwithstanding that the matter in question is received from a computer outside England and Wales.’.

Norman Baker: This group of amendments, too, stems from concern that the clause does not cover activities that I am sure the Government do not want to occur, and their purpose is at least to establish whether that is the case. The Minister knows that provisions for activities related to the recording of animal fights and the possession of such material appeared in the draft Bill, but that they have been excluded from the Bill before us.

Amendment No. 166, in the name of the hon. Member for Leominster, is almost identical to mine. That is an extraordinary coincidence, and the fact that we have independently come to the same conclusion using the same wording shows the value of amendment No. 12, and adds weight to my argument.

The issue of whether an animal fight is recorded merits separate consideration. I am not convinced that it is covered by subsection (1)(b). I am even less convinced about the clause than I was during the previous group of amendments. Someone with a mobile phone may pass an animal fight, having no prior knowledge of it, see the fight taking place and subsequently send a picture of it to their friends using their phone.

That person has not arranged an animal fight, as in subsection (1)(a); they have not knowingly participated in making, or carrying out, arrangements for an animal fight, as in paragraph (b); they have not accepted a bet, as in paragraph (c); nor have they taken part in an animal fight, as in paragraph (d). That person is outside an animal fight; they are recording it and distributing the recording. Under those circumstances, the clause does not cover such people.

Justine Greening: The problem with the clause is that it talks about the process of an animal fight—the preparation and the engagement—and stops in the wrong place. It should cover related events that may take place after the fight. The nub of the problem is that the process of an animal fight has not been captured fully by the clause, which is why it should be extended to include recording and viewing.

9.30 am

Norman Baker: I agree. Subsection (1) is designed to pick up those who have organised and participated in an animal fight; it is not designed to pick up those who have come along and observed such a fight and who then exploit it.

Ms Smith: Is it not also the case that someone who comes across an animal fight and records it on a mobile phone could forward that recording to the police? The clause may be admirable, but needs amending to make that clear.

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Norman Baker: That may well be a reasonable point. If the Minister wants to come back with a composite provision to take it on board and provide for a reasonable defence as to why a recording was made, that might be the answer and I would be happy to consider it. However, I want to know from the hon. Gentleman whether someone in the circumstances that I have described would be prosecutable. I do not think that they would be.

Bill Wiggin: I tabled many of the amendments in this group and I shall speedily go through them. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is little difference between two of them. However, there is a difference in wording, which is why both were selected.

As the hon. Gentleman said, amendments Nos. 166 and 87 have been sought in various guises by a number of interested groups, including the RSPCA. There is currently no specific offence to deal with photography and filming, and I think that there should be. I accept that much of this will be covered in legislation relating to obscene material. I am nevertheless concerned that the absence of such an offence from this Bill will hamper investigations into animal fights, which is the point made by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith).

Including a recording offence would also mean that convictions could be sought in respect of those possessing or distributing such material, even if the content of the material was produced outside the time limit for bringing a prosecution. People who keep records of animal fights must be punished; otherwise they will spread their sadistic activities to others, who could also end up involved in such sickening activities. Considering the opportunity that the internet can offer people to publish material from the recording of an animal fight, it is especially important that we stamp down on that practice. Ultimately, as the hon. Member for Lewes said, the amendment would close a loophole that may have permitted those involved in animal fights to escape justice.

It is probably worth mentioning that fights recorded abroad would be outside the scope of the Bill, but, under the proposal, the recordings would fall within it. We know that the Government feel passionately that people should be able to be held for a long time without charge, so that the police have time to investigate the evidence before a charge is brought against them. The Government made the point that the police needed time to dig through the ways in which people can now hide information. I am thinking of recordings or files that contain such information. As a result, we need to include the type of offence proposed.

Amendment No. 167 was written in conjunction with the other amendments. It states that

    “‘recording’ means a record from which visual images or sounds may, by any means, be reproduced.”

That is fairly clear, so I will not take up too much of the Committee’s time banging on about it.

Amendment No. 118, relating to recordings of prohibited conduct, would ensure that inspectors and constables who had been authorised with a warrant could enter premises to search for recording
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equipment. No provision is currently in place to restrict or ban the use of recordings of prohibited conduct, so it is necessary to add such a provision, and it would be right and appropriate to give constables and inspectors the power to enter and search premises to find evidence of the recording of crimes. I have touched on the Government’s views on that. The amendment is essentially a tidying-up measure.

Amendment No. 119 follows on from amendment No. 118. As I mentioned, the Bill does not contain provisions to deal with those involved in recording activities. In my opinion, recording animal welfare and cruelty offences is a crime as serious as the offence itself. The amendment would insert language covering recordings of prohibited conduct.

Amendment No. 120 is another in the group dealing with such recordings, and would make adjustments to the Bill to facilitate insertion of my new clause. People who record animal fights are sick individuals and the legislation must include provisions to deal with them. Those who commit such acts must be punished—I use that word seriously—and animals in their care should be protected. If a police officer found that people had been recording acts constituting offences of animal cruelty under the proposals, they would be punished. Such people are unfit to care for animals, and the amendment would make sure that they can lawfully be deprived of the animal in the interests of protecting it.

Like amendment No. 120, amendment No. 121 would ensure that those who have made recordings of conduct prohibited by the legislation can be disqualified from keeping animals. I acknowledge that such individuals may not have recorded their own animals, but as they would have participated in activities that the Bill seeks to prohibit, there is a strong and convincing case to be made that they pose a genuine, dangerous threat to the well-being of all animals. The best way to deal with them is to keep them away from animals, and we must always ensure that the animal’s welfare comes first. The measure would provide for a helpful extra punishment whereby people recording such sick activities would not themselves be able to keep animals in future.

As with previous amendments, amendment No. 122 deals with the integration of my proposed new clause on the recording of prohibited conduct. The amendment would mean that those who committed offences under that new clause risked having their equipment taken away and destroyed. The Committee will understand that we are really going after such people in every way we can.

I am grateful for Members’ patience as I scamper through these amendments. In amendment No. 185, which complements amendment No. 122, we seek to widen the scope of the sanctions available to punish those who seek to keep records of animal fights, either for their personal use or for promotional purposes.

The Bill contains no sanctions against those who indulge in recording animal fights, which we all believe are wrong and should be prevented. One way of successfully preventing them is through criminalising their promotion and recording. As there does not seem to be a desire to outlaw recording of animal fights, I
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feel it is important to punish those who record such fights with sanctions similar to those imposed on the people who let their animals fight. Promoters of animal fights, and those who record them, are as bad as those who perpetrate the crime of fighting itself.

Amendment No. 123 is also concerned with the integration of my proposed new clause. I hope that, like the others, that amendment will be given due consideration by the Committee and be included in the Bill. It deals with articles used, designed or adapted for making a recording, in the case of conviction under the recordings provisions. It follows amendment No. 122 and complements amendment No. 185, and it specifically relates to the use of recording equipment in animal fights and the sanctions that should be applied to those who partake in recording such activities. I do not need to repeat my feelings about those activities. The amendment makes sure that if people own specific equipment related to fighting, it will be treated in the same manner as equipment used in the actual fights.

New clause 5 seeks to establish a new offence of recording prohibited conduct to have a positive effect in reducing animal cruelty. It will punish those who indulge in filming some of the most sickening and stomach-churning activities imaginable, and will complement and strengthen the whole Bill. When the 1911 Act was passed, there was little mass access to recording equipment, which was undoubtedly why recording was not even considered as something that should be included in it. The 21st century will be a century with even more such communication technologies, and considering that the Bill is intended to update animal cruelty laws, it is appropriate to add the new clause and its related amendments.

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): I speak in favour of the amendments for several reasons. First, clause 7 does not cover the issue of fights; it deals with what happens before and during the fight, but not what happens after it. The clear message about fighting being illegal will send some people underground to make such recordings and to promote their activities. That is why it is particularly important that we send out a clear message that that is totally unacceptable.

I am also very concerned about an obscene fascination with lurid images that seems to be growing, particularly among young people. Sometimes, the very fact that they can gloat about something and show the images to their friends in the most obscene fashion goads them on to participate in activities that are quite despicable. We are not talking here about formal fights, but about more informal activities in which people indulge, to provoke and goad animals in order to create despicable images to pass on to friends. We must send out a clear message that that is completely unacceptable, and ensure that young people in particular are not tempted to indulge in such activity simply because they can glorify in it afterwards through the images that they produce.

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Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): Welcome back, Mrs. Humble. I respect and support the amendments, but I can see a problem with them, which I hope that the Minister will address. It concerns the malicious distribution of video clips or e-mail clips. Those of us who have been on the receiving end of malicious distribution, not wishing to receive clips of pornography or anything similar, know that we would destroy such clips. However, there would still be a record of them that can be unencrypted on computers and video phones. These are probing amendments, and I hope that the Minister will be able, after reflection, to introduce amendments that keep to their spirit, while protecting people who receive malicious distribution of clips. At present, the wording of the amendments would make those people guilty of an offence.

Shona McIsaac: The Committee’s feelings about the recording of animal fights are clear. We could argue about the wording of each amendment, what it may or may not achieve, and what problems it would create. However, it is important, as with the issue of tail docking, that the Minister goes away and get the draftsmen to consider how the clause can be worded to take into account the serious concerns that have been raised.

The recording of animal fights is absolutely integral to a loathsome subculture, from which it cannot be divorced. That is why members of the Committee are concerned that we ensure that the Bill tackles it. There is an analogy with child pornography: people videoing, distributing or possessing it are guilty of a crime. We must consider such parallels and try to get something in the Bill that captures those who video or record such cruelty, as well as those who purchase or keep it. That should not relate just to animal fighting. The Bill should cover the recording and distribution of any animal cruelty because, in addition to betting, that is how these subcultures that feed on suffering and cruelty make their money.

9.45 am

Bill Wiggin: The hon. Lady is making a passionate speech and she has got it right in some respects. However, we do not want the Government to say that such films are the equivalent of child pornography or any other obscene literature, because the minute that happens they fall outside the scope of the Bill. We want the reference to the equipment and storage of information to be in the Bill so that action can be taken; we do not want people to get away with it.

Shona McIsaac: I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but the analogy with child pornography was intended to demonstrate that the videoing, recording and distribution of images is integral to this vile subculture. It is serious. Therefore, it must be tackled in the Bill. I hope that the Minister will respond to what members of the Committee are saying. I am worried about the time limits in the clause for the prosecution of offences, which I may raise in the stand part debate.

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Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): The discussion has clearly shown a significant gap in the Bill as drafted, as I hope the Minister will accept. I echo what the hon. Members for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) and for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) said, and I support a separate clause to cover the recording of acts of animal cruelty. There are commercial videos, recordings and internet distribution of animal fights, but it remains legal to record and possess images of acts of animal cruelty of the kind that the hon. Member for Llanelli mentioned—the equivalent of happy slapping.

We all know that, unfortunately, there are some twisted people in society who seem to take pleasure in the abuse of animals and, in this day and age, that often means that they record that abuse. That must become an offence. We must tighten the loophole by which an act of cruelty, such as an animal fight that is filmed abroad but possessed by someone in this country, is legal. The Bill needs a separate clause on the issue of recording and possessing images of acts of animal cruelty. I hope that the Minister will take note of what has been said in the debate and think about introducing such a proposal.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I support the amendment and urge the Government to take our concerns extremely seriously. The Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act 1937 prohibits the public exhibition or supply of a film for that purpose if its production involved the cruel infliction of pain or terror on an animal or the cruel goading of any animal to fury. However, that Act was designed to cover films shown in cinemas; it does not cover the exhibition or supply of recordings for viewing in private homes or by tight-knit groups of individuals where admission is by invitation. Furthermore, it does not cover the possession, as opposed to the exhibition or supply of, recordings involving cruelty or fighting, and there is no record of a prosecution having been brought under that Act.

Under the Obscene Publications Act 1959, it is an offence to publish or have an obscene article for gain, but that does not cover possession for personal viewing or even viewing with a group when there is no evidence of a charge being made for viewing. An article is obscene if

    “its effect is . . . such as to tend to deprave or corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it.”

That is a notoriously difficult test to apply and extremely difficult to prove. I understand that the RSPCA, through its best endeavours, has secured just one conviction under the Act when a judge ruled that a so-called squish video was obscene. The limitations of the Act in relation to animal welfare are obvious. In addition, not all recordings of animal cruelty will be considered “obscene” and it is extremely difficult to prove that publication was for gain, especially when only one video is found.

Mr. Bradshaw: Given the number of Committee members who have expressed concern about the matter and given the speech made by the hon. Member for Putney on Second Reading, I shall spend a little time trying to reassure hon. Members that the Government are doing the right thing.

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First, I emphasise that we sympathise with the legitimate concern about the recording of animal fights, cruelty and bestiality. I agree with the description of those activities that the hon. Member for Lewes gave on Second Reading that they are disgusting. However, there were many reasons why the offence relating to the recording of animal fights was taken out of the draft Bill published in 2004 and they apply equally to recordings of cruelty and bestiality.

I shall deal quickly with the point about making a recording. If someone is making a recording of a fight, they are likely to be present at the fight and to have participated in carrying out the arrangements for the fight. It is possible that someone could make a video of an existing electronic image of an animal fight, but that is probably not what the hon. Gentleman was considering and, anyway, in general it will be covered by the comments that I shall make on distribution and possession.

Norman Baker: To pick up on participation, which I know the Minister is reviewing, if someone is walking down the street and sees something occurring and videos or records it on a mobile phone, they would not be participating in that fight and would not be covered. I suggest that they would have a good defence in law.

Mr. Bradshaw: Let me make my remarks on distribution and exhibition as opposed to just possession. Several statutory safeguards covering distribution and exhibition already exist, as the hon. Gentleman said. The Obscene Publications Act 1959 prohibits the publication and distribution of material that tends to deprave and corrupt and much of the material causing concern today would be covered by the Act for prosecution.

The Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act 1937 prohibits the exhibition and supply of any film involving cruelty or infliction of pain or terror on an animal and as such would cover films of animal cruelty, fights and many mutilations.

The Video Recordings Act 1984 prohibits the supply of a video recording that has not received a classification by the British Board of Film Classification. The BBFC is not allowed to give a classification to any material that contravenes the Obscene Publications Act 1959 or the Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act 1937, such as the recording of an unlawful activity, or an animal fight, cruelty or bestiality.

Mr. Hollobone: The problem is that the first two Acts do not apply directly to an offence of recording animal welfare abuse when viewed in a private home, and despite the best endeavours of the RSPCA, only one prosecution has been brought under the Obscene Publications Act 1959.

Mr. Bradshaw: I shall come to the difficulties of criminalising possession or viewing in a private home in a moment.

In addition, other regulatory frameworks prevent the distribution and viewing of such recordings, including the Ofcom broadcasting code and the BBC’s editorial guidelines, which ensure that such scenes are not broadcast to the public in the UK. The Government are satisfied that the commercial distribution and exhibition
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of such material is controlled. However, I accept that private exchanges take place outside that regulatory framework. When that is for commercial gain, again it is likely to be in breach of the 1984 Act, but I appreciate that the Act does not stop this happening. However, making it an offence under the Bill is not likely to do that either. The way to stop the underground trade is to prevent fights happening in the first place.

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