Animal Welfare Bill


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Justine Greening: I am puzzled by the Minister’s comments that making such behaviour an offence will not stop it happening. Surely if the law is strengthened so that people can be more readily prosecuted, that is precisely the effect that it will have.

Mr. Bradshaw: I understand the hon. Lady’s point, but I will come on to the difficulty of formulating and enforcing a law in the way in which she suggests in a moment.

There is no existing offence of possessing, as opposed to distributing, recordings of animal cruelty, animal fights and bestiality. On reflection, after the draft of the Bill was published, the Government concluded that the case for criminalising the mere possession of such material had not been made. Under current legislation, we have criminalised the possession of images only in exceptional circumstances. It may be helpful to remind hon. Members of the current area where the mere possession of images is an offence: indecent photographs of children. That is the only area. The Home Office is currently consulting on a proposed new offence of the possession of extreme pornographic material. That will concern the possession of material covering bestiality, necrophilia, serious sexual violence and serious violence in a sexual context.

I do not particularly want to go into any of those topics in more detail at this time in the morning, but the points that I wish to illustrate are, first, that possessing scenes of bestiality is already being considered elsewhere and it would not be appropriate to pre-empt that consultation and, secondly, that the Home Office is consulting now on proposals to criminalise the possession of abhorrent material involving the abuse of humans, which it has been illegal to distribute for many years. The wide range of responses that it has received indicates that there will be huge difficulties in criminalising the possession of such images. Quite a number of respondees considered the proposals to be a major increase in powers and unnecessary when such imagery is legal in many other parts of the world. If we are still in the process of considering proposals to criminalise the possession of what we believe to be abhorrent scenes of necrophilia and brutal, violent rape, how do we justify criminalising possession of scenes of animal cruelty and fighting?

Barbara Keeley (Worsley) (Lab): The additional point that some Members have referred to and that I want to draw out is that we have to admit that there is a deplorable trend in society to record certain events on mobile phones or hand-held videos—it could be by chance, but is not. Members have referred to happy slapping. The problem with what the Minister has said
 
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about the Home Office consultation is that we know that such behaviour is happening now. There is a deplorable trend of provoking something cruel—involving humans in the case of happy slapping, or animals—so that it can be recorded. That is a recent trend and it is not covered by what he is talking about. The Committee feels that it has a chance to stop that deplorable trend. In some ways, animal cruelty is extended by technological capabilities—

The Chairman: Order. I think that the Minister has got the drift of the intervention.

Mr. Bradshaw: I understand my hon. Friend’s point completely. We all deplore the trend, but simply because right-minded people deplore a trend does not necessarily mean that it is always easy or even possible to legislate against it. The provocation that she referred to would be covered in the Bill. I am trying to explain why—I will elaborate on this—it is difficult to criminalise the mere possession of certain images in the way that hon. Members suggest.

I draw hon. Members’ attention to the television without frontiers directive, which means that we cannot prevent television broadcasts into the United Kingdom from abroad without meeting a very high test. In simple terms, the test is whether the images could cause physical or mental harm to children. Although one cannot envisage any scene of bestiality that does not meet that threshold—and the distribution and publication of such scenes is already banned by the Obscene Publications Act—I do not think that we can be so categorical about scenes of animal fighting or animal cruelty, the nature and context of which could vary widely. Some would meet that test, but, to take a recent example, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport took the view that she could not prevent scenes of bull fighting in Spain from being broadcast into the United Kingdom. I am sure that hon. Members would agree that it would be odd if one could sit at home and quite legally watch scenes of bull fighting on a satellite channel or the internet, but it would be an offence if one videoed it to watch later.

10 am

The amendment might also catch the UK representative of the office of the satellite or internet provider and would risk being incompatible with EU law.

Greg Mulholland: There is a terrible flaw in that argument. In the internet era we all know that there are images of a quite remarkably disgusting nature—things that we could not imagine and would not want to—which could be broadcast into each and every one of our homes if we went to look for them. Just because things are available in British homes does not mean that we in British law should not say that they are wrong and try to prevent them in every possible way, even if we cannot always prevent them in every situation.

Mr. Bradshaw: The hon. Gentleman is not drawing a distinction between what we might deplore and what we might feel able, in practical terms, to legislate
 
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against. The amendment would also make it an offence to possess a holiday video of an animal fight watched perfectly legally abroad. Bull fighting is the obvious example. There are strongly held views on whether bull fighting is acceptable and the Bill makes it plain that it will remain illegal in the UK, but that does not mean that it is appropriate to make it an offence to possess a video of such an event, which has been watched legally and openly in another country.

Shona McIsaac: I hear what the Minister is saying about bull fighting in Spain, but he is taking us away from the Committee’s core concern, which is animal fighting in the UK. Fair enough, he mentions bull fights. But nobody is going to take a case on that to the courts in this country. I doubt whether the RSPCA would use its resources to try to get a prosecution because someone has an image on their mobile phone of a bull fight in Spain. We are talking about one of the most serious forms of cruelty in this country. It is a vile and violent subculture. The Minister must get back to that. Surely it is up to the courts to decide, not the Committee saying, “Well, what about a bull fight? We had better not do anything about dog fighting because we might criminalise someone coming back from their holiday.” The Minister is deflecting us from the key concern.

Mr. Bradshaw: I am not seeking to deflect the Committee at all. I am simply trying to concentrate the minds of Members on the possible implications of the amendments and new clauses. As my hon. Friend knows, commoners can prosecute under the Bill so it would be up to her. If she deplored bull fighting, she could take out a case. She would not have to rely on the RSPCA.

Let me deal with the points raised by the hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) on Second Reading. She said that it should not matter whether the recording took place in the jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales. All one would need for the offence to be committed would be the possession or distribution of a recording in England and Wales. If the fight took place outside England and Wales, it is not an animal welfare issue of the type the Bill is intended to address.

The proposed offence attempts to take universal jurisdiction over the welfare of animals in other countries. I do not consider that justified in respect of bull fighting in Spain, and one could think of other examples to highlight the fact that such activities may be perfectly legal in the country where they are filmed. Furthermore, it would be difficult to prove that the animals involved were harmed. The fight could be a computer-generated image, which is an increasing problem with today’s technological advances.

Shona McIsaac: My hon. Friend says that it is difficult to show whether an image is computer-generated or an actual fight. That is not true. It is quite easy technologically to distinguish between the two.

Mr. Bradshaw: I take my hon. Friend’s point. The advice I have been given is that that could cause problems. I will explain why. To anticipate the objection that the distinction should not matter
 
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because the evil that we are trying to address is copycat behaviour by viewers, I simply point out that we should be well into the realms of public morality if we were to criminalise the possession of computer-generated images of animal fighting on that basis.

I draw Members’ attention to the current film “King Kong”, which contains graphic scenes of animal fights, albeit computer-generated, and is rated 12A and likely to be seen by a wide and possibly impressionable audience. Neither King Kong nor tyrannosaurus rex is a protected animal and, obviously, they are computer-generated, but I am sure that Members will understand the point and agree that that is not what we are trying to capture with the Bill.

I applaud Members’ intentions and share their concern about the morals of people who like to watch recordings of animal fights, but I am not convinced that the amendments and new clause are sensible or practical ways to regulate such matters. It is far more effective for the Bill to focus on preventing animal fighting by deterring those who can clearly be shown to be directly connected with that appalling activity.

Justine Greening: I understand what the Minister is trying to say, but I do not accept his arguments at all. First, there is a world of difference between a computer-generated image of animal cruelty and an image that is created through genuine animal cruelty, which is what the amendment seeks to tackle.

Secondly, if the amendments were included in the Bill, we might find that people who get sadistic pleasure from watching such images would instead watch computer-generated ones, which might mean that animals would not be injured in the preparation of such images. People could feed their sick, immoral intentions without harming animals. Therefore, I do not understand the Minister’s argument. In many respects, what he is saying proves why the amendments should be included; indeed, there is even greater reason than we had cause to think before.

Mr. Bradshaw: I hear what the hon. Lady says, but her argument does not address the issue of bull fighting in Spain, to which I referred earlier. For those reasons, I hope that the amendment will be withdrawn.

Bill Wiggin: I understand that the Minister is fighting a tricky corner. Only a few days ago he took the temperature of the Committee on the thorny moral issue of tail docking. If he had done the same today, he would have learned that the Committee is not at all happy with his valiant defence, which is based on simple practical difficulties.

I do not think that bull fighting falls into the same category as dog fighting—dog against dog—which is a prime concern of the Committee. The abject cruelty that goes with that practice bothers all members of the Committee. Yes, of course, there are practical difficulties in prohibiting something that could be widely interpreted to include bull fighting—I understand that—but that is the challenge that the Government brought on themselves when they introduced the legislation. That is the challenge that they must meet, and that is why they have resources
 
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such as draftsmen and the bright and capable people who support them when they introduce Bills. They should turn to those resources.

There is no reason why people should bring back videos of dog fights from abroad, as the prime cause of that cruel practice is betting. If we do not stamp out that sort of recorded material, even if we stop some of the dog fights that happen in Britain, we will not deal with the root of the problem, which is gambling. Therefore, we must try to make such material illegal in this country.

Mr. Drew: I hear clearly what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and I hope that the Government also hear it and come back with an amendment on Report, even if the Minister is not minded to do so at present. Does the hon. Gentleman accept the Minister’s argument that a possible solution would be for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to tighten up the law on visual images? I know that it is difficult for one Department to rely on another in such cases.

Bill Wiggin: That is an important point and I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention.

The Minister talked about bestiality and said that we should not be pre-emptive. We are not talking about that, actually; we are far more concerned about dog fights and other sorts of animal fight. A problem we face as a Committee is what to do about films such as “Lassie”, when one sees dog against puma—or whatever creature Lassie is saving a child from. Such scenes in those films do not mean that the animals in question end up wounded or injured. We are not really dealing with the same kind of film.

To return to the point about bestiality, it will fall under the Home Office’s obscene publications remit because it involves people.

Greg Mulholland: I must point out that the line of argument used by the Minister and the hon. Gentleman is absolute nonsense. No one is suggesting that we outlaw computer-generated imagery of animals, whether imaginary animals or real ones, in films any more than anyone is suggesting that because of snuff movies—which we all agree are terrible and evil—we should ban depictions of violence in fictional films. The argument is absolutely spurious.

Bill Wiggin: The hon. Gentleman is trying to make the point that there is a difference between violent dog fighting films and those such as “Lassie”. I agree, but I do not think the argument spurious; it is an important one because it is the defence the Government have used.

Mr. Hollobone: Presumably, “Lassie”, “King Kong” and the images of a tyrannosaurus rex are covered by the Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act 1937 anyway.

Bill Wiggin: That is helpful; my hon. Friend is right. The point we need to drive home to the Minister is that the Committee is concerned. We are not content to allow films of dog fighting to be kept by people and to
 
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be shown again and again. We want that vile and unpleasant activity stopped across the board. A huge raft of amendments have been tabled that would make it extremely difficult to make such films, to hold on to the necessary equipment, to retain the films at home and to make bets based on the information that can be held.

I hope that the Minister will not stick to his guns on this issue, but will listen carefully to our concerns. If there is a vote I shall support the hon. Member for Lewes and I reserve my right to press new clause 5 to a vote because it deals best with the problem.

Norman Baker: We have had an interesting exchange. It was one of those occasions when the longer the Minister was talking, the less I was convinced by his arguments. I began with the concern that the generality of subsection (1)(b), which we rely on to cover all the various offences that were in the draft Bill, may not cover recording. I believe that it does not, but I expected the Minister to stand up and say, “Hon. Members are wrong. It does cover recording for the following reasons.” He said nothing of the sort.

The Minister actually said that the subsection does not cover recording and that we cannot deal with that because parliamentary draftsmen would find it too difficult to draft something that covered such an offence, so the Government do not want to pursue the matter. He said that although they do not agree with animal cruelty or with people distributing such disgusting images—he accepted the word I used—somehow the parliamentary draftsmen, who are paid very well, cannot come up with a form of words to deal with the issue, so he is letting it go.

That does not seem a satisfactory way forward and it is resiling from the intention of the draft Bill, which perfectly properly identified the issue as important. Rather than find a form of words with which we are happy, the matter has been dropped altogether. The Minister is saying that people can go out, record such events and distribute them with the blessing of the Government because there is no offence—

Mr. Bradshaw: That is just wrong.

Norman Baker: If the Minister wants to intervene, I will happily allow him to. What discouragement exists in law to prevent people from doing that?

Mr. Bradshaw: I mentioned in my address legislation that covered recording and participating in distribution. The difficulty is criminalising the mere possession of an image when other images, which most reasonable people, including most Committee members, would consider far more serious, are not currently criminalised.

Norman Baker: What we have from the Minister is a long list of legislation that does not apply in any shape or form to the recording or distribution of material for private purposes when it is shared with people and no charge is made. The Obscene Publications Act does not apply, as we have heard, if no charge is made—it applies only to cases of gain. We
 
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have the evidence of the Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act 1937, which does not apply unless the recording is a film. The Minister has, to my mind, dealt satisfactorily with the issue of commercial distribution, but not at all with the issue of personal and private distribution.

10.15 am

Bill Wiggin: The other point that the Minister has not satisfied us on is that the Government may intend to bring in further bans on different types of activity, but there is no reason why this Bill should not lead the way on a specific offence.

Norman Baker: Absolutely. That is perfectly true. The most that we have been given by the Minister, who is shaking his head and saying that he will not bring the matter back on Report—Government Members should understand that—is a loose promise that, in future, some other Department might have some sort of consultation that will be designed for a different purpose and might suddenly, possibly, be used to deal with this activity. No sensible or detailed promises have been made. We are buying a pig in a poke, if I can use an animal welfare term.

Shona McIsaac: I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s summing-up, and as he can tell from what I said earlier, I feel strongly about the matter. However, there are some drafting issues with his amendment. Given what the Minister said, would he be able to go back and come up with something that deals with what the Minister says? I am trying to find a way forward with his amendment.

Norman Baker: I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who is trying to find a way forward, who feels strongly on the matter and who wants, as I do, to have legislation that works, that is competent and that has no loopholes.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab) rose—

Norman Baker: I will deal first with the hon. Lady’s point. If the Minister had said that he recognised the issue and the strong feelings of the Committee, and would bring back a form of words that dealt with the matter, ensuring that people could not record or distribute material of this nature, I for one would be standing here saying “Thank you very much. I will withdraw this amendment.” However, he has said nothing of the sort; he has said that he will not bring the matter back on Report, and that he is convinced that the present arrangements are satisfactory.

Under those circumstances, what should the Committee do? I suggest that if I now withdraw the amendment and let the matter go, it will not return in any form because the Minister has set his face against it. The only way—I say this to the hon. Member for Cleethorpes—to achieve progress is for the Committee to support the amendment. The Minister will then have to go back and come up with a form of words that he finds satisfactory.

Paddy Tipping rose—


 
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Mr. Drew rose—

Justine Greening rose—

Norman Baker: I have three people trying to intervene on me, so I shall take the hon. Member for Sherwood first.

Paddy Tipping: I do not think that this is the only way forward, but I have listened carefully to the debate, and there are strong views on the matter. The Minister has made his position clear. I would not ask him to bring something back on Report but I would ask him to reflect on the debate to see whether he and his officials can find a way forward. The appropriate way forward is to think about it more, reconsider the issues involved and see whether anything can be done to redraft the Bill.

Norman Baker: We have not even had that. The hon. Member for Sherwood is a notoriously reasonable person.

Paddy Tipping: One does not have to be notorious to be ruthless.

Norman Baker: He is a politician. That is why.

Justine Greening: The only people who will leave this Room feeling happy as the Bill stands are organised criminals, who are happy making and distributing recordings of the animal fights that they organise. That is a ludicrous situation. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if there is a loophole, we should at least try to close it, rather than just fall over backwards and admit defeat?

Norman Baker: Absolutely. I must come back to the Minister’s arguments, which were—I do not mean to be offensive—spurious in some regards. We were told that King Kong and tyrannosaurus rex are not endangered or protected species under the Bill.

Bill Wiggin: They are extinct.

Norman Baker: They are extinct—King Kong is not real—so it would be difficult to protect them. It is ludicrous that that point has been weighed in defence of the Minister. It is perfectly possible to separate cinema and films from the activities in real life that we are trying to deal with. For example, plenty of Quentin Tarantino movies, which I do not find in any way attractive, depict significant violence against human beings that if carried out in reality would be an offence, yet no one suggests that Quentin Tarantino is guilty of actual violence. It is clearly fictional. Weighing in with the film “King Kong” to defend the Minister is beyond belief.

Mr. Drew: Although we feel strongly about this issue I wish to show how difficult it is by raising the matter of material that has been accumulated for the purpose of a prosecution by the RSPCA or trading standards. We have all seen such evidence because its collection is the only way that a prosecution can be effected.


 
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I signed the amendment because, as I said, I want the intention as well as the actual event to be important. Will the hon. Gentleman say what he thinks would happen if the RSPCA took a video and could subsequently be prosecuted for holding that video?

Norman Baker: That is why I would prefer the Minister to come back with a response. The point about a defence if someone is making a video for police purposes was mentioned earlier, and the hon. Gentleman has made a similar point. I would prefer the Minister to say, “Yes, we are going to deal with this issue and I will come back to the Committee with the appropriate words”, but he has not done so. What do we do now? Either we let it go or we accept the amendment and the Minister will be forced to table a form of words that meets our legitimate points, which is what I suggest. Bull fighting is a red herring, if I may mix my metaphors. I am not even sure that it is an animal fight, as only one animal is involved.

Nia Griffith: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Norman Baker: I am sorry but I have no time.

The Minister has given a poor answer on a serious issue and we will not make much progress as he has set his face against the proposal. The only way for members of the Committee to improve the Bill is to vote for the amendment.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

Bill Wiggin: On a point of order, Mrs. Humble. Did the Minister have a chance to speak? [Interruption.] If I am wrong, I will be told.

The Chairman: May I clarify whether the Minister wished to speak at this late stage in the debate?

Mr. Bradshaw: If it is in order, Mrs. Humble, I was intending to speak—


 
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Greg Mulholland: Further to that point of order, Mrs. Humble. It is for the hon. Member who moved the amendment to sum up the debate. May we now please move to the vote?

The Chairman: As the question has been put, I have to proceed.

Shona McIsaac: Further to that point of order, Mrs. Humble. The hon. Member for Lewes asked the Minister to answer various questions. I realise that towards the end of his summing up, the hon. Gentleman did not take interventions. Therefore, if the Minister could possibly respond before we vote on the amendment, it would assist the Committee greatly.

The Chairman: The Minister did not indicate that he wished to speak when the hon. Member for Lewes finished speaking. I therefore put the question to the Committee. I fear that having done so, the Committee must reach a decision on the proposal.

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 10.

[Division No. 2]

AYES

Baker, Norman
Greening, Justine
Hollobone, Mr. Philip
Mulholland, Greg
Paice, Mr. James
Wiggin, Bill

NOES

Bradshaw, Mr. Ben
Cunningham, Tony
Drew, Mr. David
Griffith, Nia
Keeley, Barbara
Kidney, Mr. David
McIsaac, Shona
Smith, Ms Angela C.       (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
Snelgrove, Anne
Tipping, Paddy

Question accordingly negatived.

The Chairman: Before we proceed, will the hon. Member for Leominster clarify whether he wishes to move new clause 5 at a later stage?

 
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