Animal Welfare Bill

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Mr. Bradshaw: As we have already discussed in Committee, the Bill is intended to be a common informers Act under which anyone—a private individual or an organisation—can take forward a prosecution if he or she thinks that they have the necessary evidence. That is not new or surprising. Since the 19th century, animal protection legislation has been enforced by the vigilance of private individuals and organisations, of which the RSPCA has been the most conspicuous example. The amendment would substantially fetter the existing right of private individuals or non-state organisations to launch prosecutions. In each case, as the hon. Gentleman has just said, prior consent would have to be gained from the Crown Prosecution Service or a local authority legal department.

We anticipate that most of the day-to-day enforcement work relating to pet animals under the Bill will continue to be carried out by the RSPCA. It has a long-established expertise in both the investigation and the prosecution of cases involving animal welfare. We believe that to fetter its rights as a common informer in the manner suggested would put an unreasonable burden on both the Crown Prosecution Service and local authorities, while not yielding any improvement in animal welfare. The RSPCA currently undertakes some 1,500 prosecutions a year. The fact that 97 per cent. of its prosecutions are successful suggests that its general approach is justified.

I have every confidence that the RSPCA will apply the same prudence to prosecutions under the new welfare offence as it does to prosecutions under existing powers. However, let me reassure the Committee that there are already several safeguards in our system to guard against inappropriate prosecutions. The Director of Public Prosecutions has
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the right to intervene if a prosecution has been inappropriately taken forward, the courts have the power to make cost orders to punish a party that pursues unjustified proceedings, and any individual has the right to bring a civil claim for malicious prosecution. We do not believe that there is evidence to suggest that the current system is failing defendants, the wider interests of society or the welfare of animals. In that light, I urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Paice: I am grateful to the Minister for his response. He is right that to say that there are fall-backs for individuals who feel that they have been unfairly prosecuted. They include the courts’ awarding costs.

Bill Wiggin: My hon. Friend is absolutely right: there are the safeguards that the Minister touched on. However, there is a big difference between an individual—in most cases, the prosecutions will be against individuals—and a charity or an organisation. If an individual is fined by the court, that person pays the fine. If someone works for a charity and the charity is fined, that person does not pay the fine; the charity does. The balance is different, and I wonder whether the Minister has really addressed that.

6.30 pm

Mr. Paice: My hon. Friend makes an important point. This has cropped up on many occasions and the Minister himself referred to it earlier, so I know that he is very conscious of concern that the Bill gives the RSPCA a much greater role, shall we say, in animal welfare. The Minister has repeatedly said, quite correctly, that the Bill does not extend the RSPCA’s powers at all, but there is concern at that greater role. Clearly, because we are creating a whole raft of new offences, with the duty of care and so on, one would expect the number of prosecutions to rise from that 1,500. It would be wholly improper to stand here and suggest that the RSPCA, or anyone else, brings unnecessary prosecutions. The statistics that the Minister has just used show quite the contrary. Nevertheless, there is concern.

The purpose in tabling the amendment was to try to draw out the sort of points just made by the Minister—to illustrate and, I hope, to allay those concerns. Most of the Committee recognises that the concerns exist, rightly or wrongly, in some sectors of society involved with animals. I am grateful for what the Minister has said and hope that he is indeed proved right, in that neither the RSPCA nor anyone else commences unnecessary prosecutions. In light of that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 26 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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Clause 27

Time Limits for prosecutions

Bill Wiggin: I beg to move amendment No. 210, in clause 27, page 13, line 13, leave out paragraph (a) and insert—

      ‘(a)   before the end of the period of twelve months beginning with the date of commission of the offence, and’.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 56, in clause 27, page 13, line 18, leave out subsection (2).

Bill Wiggin: The amendment seeks to change the period from three years to 12 months. It harks back to something I said a while ago on clause 21, about the length of time that people may be expected to keep records. We are talking about seeking to ensure that offenders are dealt with promptly, and interventions are made in the interests of the animal. The Bill, as a whole, concerns alleged harm to an animal’s welfare and therefore, potentially, actual suffering. In that case, it is important to begin proceedings as soon as possible. To allow a prosecutor three years suggests a lack of urgency.

The Bill will also mean that anyone caring for an animal—whether a pet owner, pet business, sanctuary, hobby or club—must keep records to ensure that they have fulfilled their duty of care. For a pet business routinely to keep all of its paperwork is an enormous practical burden. The vast majority of English and Welsh pet shops, of which I think there are 10,000—with the kennels, catteries and grooming salons—are micro-businesses employing fewer than five people. Yet over a three-year period those 10,000 will care for many hundreds of thousands of animals. While almost half of such businesses have a computer, most keep their routine check-sheets manually and work from premises with limited office space. That paper storage would pose something of a logistical challenge.

For pet owners, the challenge will be to diarise their pet-care routine, keeping vets’ bills and similar documentation that can be considered contemporaneous. Most pet owners do not, at present, do that. To ask them to do so for a full three years seems unnecessarily burdensome. The European Court of Human Rights has indicated that a delay of two years in bringing a case may be in breach of the convention, as memory is likely to fade beyond that period.

If an animal is an exhibit in a case, and belongs to the person likely to be prosecuted, keeping it in custody for up to three years—which I think the Minister talked about earlier today—may be unnecessarily cruel. Indeed, that three-year period exceeds the total life expectancy of some animals, especially small ones. When we consider the overall importance of the Bill and the points that I have raised, it seems only appropriate that the time scale is altered.

The intention of amendment No. 56 is to safeguard the rights of the defendant to receive a fair trial—principally, when there has been a significant time-lag between the alleged offences taking place and the prosecutors deciding to proceed. There is in the Bill an
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implicit onus on the defendant to prove that the prosecution team may have known about the alleged offences for more than six months prior to commencing that prosecution.

I am of the opinion that the onus should always be on the prosecution to prove their case, which is why I tabled the amendment. That is particularly important when we consider that, in private prosecutions, it is possible for the evidence gatherers in a case to be the same group of people as the prosecutors. Although I appreciate that subsection (2) makes provision for a prosecutor to sign a certificate authenticating the date, I am not sure whether that will be good enough.

First, there is no way of knowing for certain that the certificate has been made on that date. Secondly, possibilities for fraud exist, especially when we consider that under subsection (2)(a) it is possible for someone other than the prosecutor to sign such a certificate on his or her behalf. Thirdly, in such circumstances, which are currently prescribed, our judiciary will be expected to rely on a mere signed certificate as sufficient proof. Although the amendment will dispense with the need for prosecutors to sign certificates, it will still place an implicit emphasis on them to be able to prove their dates. It will also urge prosecutors to prosecute more effectively, swiftly and justly.

Mr. Bradshaw: As the hon. Gentleman has indicated, the clause would extend the time limit for prosecuting an offence under the Bill beyond the limit that would normally apply under the Magistrates’ Court Act 1980. We have done that because enforcers have told us that with animal welfare offences it is often some time before an offence against an animal comes to light, and that can lead to difficulties bringing prosecutions under the current law. Often, an alleged offender cannot be prosecuted because once the evidence against him or her emerges, the case is time-barred. Amendment No. 210 would seek to reduce that time limit considerably.

Mr. Paice: I have a genuine question. The Minister has obviously given the issue a great deal of thought. Can he give us examples, on the matter to which he has just referred, of the evidence in such cases regarding animals? Most of us would assume that animal cruelty is quite obvious almost immediately after it occurs. Will he give some examples of where the two-year period would not be sufficient?

Mr. Bradshaw: The hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members will have had some rather stomach-churning examples drawn to their attention by animal welfare organisations; for example, the discovery of many emaciated dead animals that died long, painful deaths and had been stored in somebody’s freezer. Because that discovery happened some time after the offence had occurred, it was not possible, under current law, to prosecute that case. That sort of thing has been drawn to our attention and has made us think that the provision is justified. I will deal, in a minute, with the safeguards that we have included in the drafting.

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Another reason we have chosen the three-year period is that it is the same as the one included in the Animal Health Act 2002, which extended the time limit in the Animal Health Act 1981 to three years, but with a six-month limitation, once the prosecutor becomes aware of sufficient evidence. It is sensible to impose the same time limit for prosecutions of welfare offences as for those relating to animal health.

Amendment No. 56 concerns the operation of the six-month limitation. Once the prosecutor becomes aware of the evidence the question is whether he should have to prove that he has not had the evidence available to him for more than six months, or whether a certification by him that he has not had the evidence available should be treated as conclusive. There are sound reasons for the approach that we have chosen.

First, it could be difficult and potentially hugely burdensome for a prosecutor to prove that he or she was not aware of the evidence—we would be asking them to prove a negative. In the absence of subsection (2), there is a risk that well-founded prosecutions could become sidetracked into arguments about when exactly evidence of the offence came to light and when exactly a decision was taken about the sufficiency of that evidence. That would waste the time and resources of the courts and the parties involved. Again, I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the 2002 Act, which contains the same time limits that we propose here. It also treats the certificate of a prosecutor as conclusive. We are not aware that that has caused any difficulties in that legislation. On that basis, I urge the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) to withdraw the amendment.

Bill Wiggin: I am worried that the Minister is trying to have his cake and eat it. On the one hand, he wants a very long period in which offences can be prosecuted, but on the other, he is not happy for the prosecutor to mark the time at which the evidence has become clear. I objected to that during consideration of the Animal Health Bill because I had grave reservations about it. I am comforted to some extent that the problem has not become a major one, but there is a risk.

I am content to withdraw my amendment at this stage, but I reserve the right to return to the matter on Report if necessary. We have to be clear about the sort of offences we wish to prosecute, and what the Minister has said so far indicates that the Bill is not designed to escalate the number of prosecutions. However, this aspect of the Bill is designed to do exactly that, which runs rather contrary to what we have heard so far. The Minister should think about the three-year period; it widens the opportunity for prosecution. I understand why he wants to do that, but in the same vein, there should be clarity about when the prosecution has the evidence and wishes to begin. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 27 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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Clause 28

Imprisonment or fine

Bill Wiggin: I beg to move amendment No. 158, in clause 28, page 13, line 34, leave out from

    ‘exceeding’ to end and insert £20,000’.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 157, in clause 28, page 13, line 35, at end insert—

    ‘(2A)   When a person guilty of an offence is imprisoned under subsection (1)(a) or subsection (2)(a), they shall not be eligible for early release through a “custody plus order” under Chapter 44 section 181(4) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003.’.

Bill Wiggin: The amendment would ensure that punishments for offences committed under the legislation are consistent. While I appreciate that the maximum punishment a magistrates court can impose will be applied to those who have committed offences under clauses 4, 5, 6 and 7, I would like the sanction to be available for those to be punished under duty of care offences under clause 8—I am not sure that I agree with my notes on this.

I acknowledge that the decision to impose the maximum £20,000 fine will no doubt seldom be used, and presumably only in the most serious of cases. It is important that the Committee makes it clear that fines should not always be of the maximum size or just under; they should be considered. Magistrates should have the opportunity to sanction fines that exceed the £500 maximum for the other offences specified in subsection (2)(b).

The offences under clause 11(6) that deal with licensing and registration will be covered, so it would surely make sense to ensure that the maximum £20,000 fine could be made available to magistrates as well. After all, it is quite probable that businesses will be affected by the legislation, and I would like sufficient deterrents in place to ensure that businesses caring for our animals are ensuring their welfare.

My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire raised the matter with the Secretary of State on Second Reading, but she did not justify the present position. She stated:

    “If the hon. Gentleman looks at the legislation that the Bill replaces, he will see that there were similar differences. These are issues that can be explored in Committee. If the House feels that a change should be made, no doubt that can be considered.”—[Official Report, 10 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 169.]

Here we are, considering it. As we are here to update the existing legislation and bring it into line with today’s standards, as the Secretary of State and Minister have frequently pointed out, it is only logical that we do not rely on 20th-century punitive measures for 21st-century crimes. With that in mind, I hope that the Minister will agree that the change is appropriate. I am sorry that my voice is so croaky, Mrs. Humble.

I tabled amendment No. 157 because I believe that those who commit the crime should serve the time. Nothing in the Bill prevents offenders from being eligible for the custody-plus scheme—a subject that I know is dear to my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening), who raised the point on Second Reading. I agreed with her entirely when she
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pointed out that it is wrong that people who commit crimes against inanimate objects are sentenced for longer periods than those who offend against animals, who have feelings and emotions.

The provision would mean that some people who have committed the most atrocious crimes could face about 13 weeks in prison. My hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) highlighted some despicable cases of animal cruelty. There was a case involving nine men and a woman who were prosecuted for dog fighting offences. I was appalled that the longest sentence handed out to one of them was only four months. Such short sentences are not sufficient either as punishment or as a deterrent, and the custody-plus release scheme should not be used in these circumstances. The public will have no confidence in a system that can permit someone responsible for the cruel death of an animal to be in prison for only three months.

6.45 pm

Mr. Paice: I shall speak briefly to support my hon. Friend’s amendments, especially the first one, to which he kindly referred in an intervention. The proposal is important to the public’s understanding of what we do in this place and of the meaning of legislation. Sentencing practice needs to be simple, clear and understandable.

Subsections (1), (2) and (4) contain puzzling discrepancies and the amendment would rectify the one in subsection (2). In all three subsections, the offence could lead to

    “imprisonment for a term not exceeding 51 weeks”.

That is clear, and no one could dispute it. But most members of the public would expect the alternative penalty of a fine to be consistent, yet the fine is different for all three offences. If 51 weeks is the maximum period of imprisonment, the maximum fine should also be consistent for all three offences; otherwise they will lack credibility, and that is daft.

If an offence under clauses 8 and 11 or those subsections could lead to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, or 51 weeks imprisonment, why is not that the case for an offence under clauses 4 to 7? If 51 weeks is the maximum term of imprisonment and magistrates decide instead to impose the maximum fine, they are constrained by different maximums. The ordinary member of the public trying to understand the criminal justice system, which is complicated enough, will wonder why, if there is consistency in the maximum term of imprisonment, there is no consistency in the maximum fine.

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): I support amendment No. 157. As I said on Second Reading, I am anxious that the amendment should be accepted. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster said, people convicted of dog-fighting offences were given a four-month sentence, which, arguably, was insufficient. Under the Bill, the maximum will be only 13 weeks, which is wholly inadequate. The Bill has
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focused on animal welfare issues from the word go, and organised criminals will not be put off by custody plus from breaching animal welfare conditions.

It is important, therefore, that magistrates have the ability to give a substantial 12-month sentence if they feel that that is appropriate. At some point, it may be wise to give them the chance to give a longer sentence, but that is not the subject of the proposal. I urge the Minister to accept the amendment; most members of the public would wish him to do so.

Ms Angela C. Smith: I have every sympathy with the amendments in the sense that there should be consistency in the fines and that we need to ensure that organised criminals are prevented from undertaking their vicious practices for as long as possible. However, penalties for offenders must be a combination of deterrent, punishment and protection for animals.

In respect of fines and imprisonment, the punishment factor and the deterrence value as it affects potential future offenders are in place. I welcome the increased penalties in the Bill, but I think that we need to balance the picture by recognising that the protection factor is the ban on the future ownership of animals. We need to remember that part of the package when looking at the clause.

In Sheffield last week, we had a terrible case brought to court by the RSPCA, involving a dog called Shogun, which has fallen from its ideal weight of 50 kg to 32 kg in the space of a few months. The dog was tethered to a metal post, hardly able to move, and was kept alongside—in fact, on top of—a pile of rubbish. The punishment meted out to the offenders was a conditional discharge of 12 months and a ban on the ownership of dogs for five years.

Bill Wiggin: One thing is that the ban is specific to dogs. There is a real weakness in the legislation that allows such people not to be banned from keeping an animal of any sort, and for a very long period of time. That would not be as a punishment, but as a precaution.

Ms Smith: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that valuable perspective.

I was going on to say that I would like the Minister to look at two things. One is the scale and terms of the ban, and whether that relates just to the animal over which the offenders were prosecuted or whether we would need to include all animals in such bans. Secondly, when someone has treated an animal in such a way, is a ban of five years sufficient? Is there anything that we can do in the guidance to ensure that animals are protected in the future through the use of the mechanism? In particular, lifelong bans are important in the protection of animals and they have to be used when necessary to protect animal welfare.

Mr. Bradshaw: I am pleased that we have had the chance to have the discussion, because the issue was raised at some length on Second Reading. I know that it concerns hon. Members on both sides of the House. I am glad that there has been a broad welcome for the
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quadrupling of the maximum fine and the increased possibility of longer prison sentences. I will come to the impact of custody plus in a moment.

I wanted to say to the hon. Member for Leominster that amendment No. 157 would disqualify anyone who has been convicted under clauses 4 to 7, and clause 8(11)(6) or clause 30(9) from early release under a custody plus order made under the Criminal Justice Act 2003. I am sure that he understands that disapplying the statutory sentencing framework governing custodial sentences for one category of offences is not possible.

The Criminal Justice Act introduced custody plus, which is a new structure for short custodial sentences and is designed to make them more effective in reducing reoffending. When implemented—it has not been yet—custody plus will apply across the board to all custodial sentences under 12 months. Under a custody plus sentence, offenders will serve their sentences in full, partly in custody and partly on licence complying with court-set requirements in the community. However, currently, all custodial sentences of 12 months or less are served only to their halfway point. At this point, release is automatic and the second half of the sentence is subject to no conditions whatsoever. We believe that such short custodial sentences give the Prison Service little time to work on the factors that underlie criminality and are therefore ineffective at reducing reoffending. Custody plus also provides an opportunity for the effective resettlement of offenders, which is key to reducing reoffending.

Under the current legislation, a maximum sentence of three months’ imprisonment can be imposed for offences of animal cruelty, which results in a maximum of three months spent in prison followed by no supervision in the community. However, all custody plus sentences will be at least 28 weeks and up to 51 weeks in total, and each sentence will comprise between two weeks and three months in custody, followed by a minimum of six months’ supervision in the community. During that period, the offender will be under the supervision of the probation service, subject to requirements such as unpaid work—which could be something to do with animal welfare, if that was deemed appropriate—a curfew, or drug or alcohol treatment.

The other issue that Members should be aware of is that it will be possible under the Bill to impose two or more custody plus sentences to run consecutively for two or more offences, provided that the total term does not exceed 65 weeks and a total custodial period does not exceed 26 weeks. The hon. Member for Putney is right to say that, for one offence, we are talking about 13 weeks in jail, but if there is more than one offence, it is possible for the courts to ask for the sentences to run consecutively.

I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough. Yes, the vast majority of people concerned about animal welfare want those who inflict terrible cruelty on animals to be punished properly, but their main concern is protecting animals. The welfare of animals is why we are all here to support the Bill, and it is far more effective to give the courts
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scope, as the Bill does, not only for lifelong bans on ownership, but for lifelong bans on ownership of all animals, not just the animal involved in the case.

Amendment No. 157 would preclude those convicted of animal cruelty or welfare offences from a period of supervision following release from custody, and would thereby preclude the opportunity for constructive work to prevent reoffending. Amendment No. 158 would raise the maximum fine for the welfare offence in clause 8 from £5,000 to £20,000. The maximum fine of £20,000 for an offence of cruelty under clause 4 has already been quadrupled from the status quo and is designed to allow the courts more flexibility when dealing with very serious cases of animal cruelty, such as animal fighting, in which the suffering is deliberately caused, and cases in which the motive is financial.

In cases involving the welfare offence in clause 8, we would not expect there to be actual suffering; otherwise, the prosecution should have been for the cruelty offence under clause 4. It would not be sensible to have the same maximum financial penalty for both the welfare and the cruelty offences. On that basis, I ask the hon. Member for Leominster to withdraw the amendment.

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