Animal Welfare Bill


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Bill Wiggin: No more Mr. Nice Guy, Mrs. Humble; this is the awkward bit. With these amendments, we are seeking to establish statutory guarantees that the persons who are classified as inspectors will be suitably trained. The Bill does not specify the necessary criteria for someone to be an inspector, acquiring powers
 
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under this legislation. It mentions lists and guidance by the appropriate national authorities, but does not say that an inspector needs to be sufficiently qualified.

Subsection (2) gives the appropriate national authority powers to issue guidance on the appointment of inspectors. Amendment No. 187 would complement such guidance by making provision for such persons to be qualified as inspectors in the field in which they will be required to inspect. It is sensible and appropriate to ensure that inspectors are qualified and sufficiently trained to carry out their duties. Given that under clauses 16, 17 and 19 to 25, inspectors will have powers to search premises and even terminate an animal’s life, I would like to be reassured that they are competent enough to carry out those duties.

An inspector will have powers of entry. I believe that it is necessary that they are qualified to search for evidence and to treat the animals that they find. A statutory provision for inspectors to be qualified and trained would benefit the enforcement of the legislation. For instance, those who are investigating licensed premises must be qualified to do so, as they may require different levels of expertise from those who investigate animal welfare complaints. Considering the near immunity from civil and criminal proceedings that inspectors are given under subsection (5), it is especially important that these inspectors are suitably qualified. I am sure that most inspectors act in good faith, but that good faith and their judgment about reasonable grounds would be compromised by a lack of expertise.

Moreover, having suitably qualified inspectors would serve to clarify the present confusion. There are inspectors under the control of and directly accountable to Government bodies, and there are so-called inspectors who are representatives of non-governmental bodies—for example, the RSPCA—and in respect of whom there is no governmental accountability. I suggest the amendment with that in mind. Given that the hon. Member for Lewes has tabled similar amendments, Nos. 40 and 41, there is scope for progress to be made on this.

10 am

With amendment No. 60, I seek to ensure that inspectors will act impartially. Under the Bill, the words used by inspectors and their opinions and decisions could lead to prosecutions being taken against people. As inspectors will be acting on behalf of the state, we must ensure that they are impartial, otherwise confidence in the system will be jeopardised. For example, if a charity is against pet fairs and has inspectors who are empowered by local authorities to investigate pet fairs, questions about the objectiveness of their judgment could be raised. Without doubt, that would lead those who were accused of offences by such inspectors to feel that they had been pursued maliciously. I am also concerned that those who are guilty of offences will be provided with a get-out, because they will be able to cast doubt on inspectors’ competence and judgment by revealing their prejudices. The amendment would preserve the impartiality of inspectors.


 
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I have a supplementary point to make. We need Ministers to guarantee that only inspectors under the direct control of Government bodies will receive the near immunity from civil and criminal prosecutions in subsection (5). Will RSPCA inspectors be covered by the provision? If so, the RSPCA will be getting an additional power that I do not think it wants. Will RSPCA officers be liable under subsection (6) if they are assisting an inspector who is exempt? I would be grateful if the Minister clarified that.

Amendment No. 48 would add:

    “The appropriate national authority shall ensure that adequate additional funds are available to local authorities for the appointment and training of inspectors under this Act.”

Even without amendments Nos. 187 and 59, the clause might require local authorities to spend more money on inspectors to carry out the duties required of them. Given the current financial burdens on local councils and the fact that the public have little appetite for further council tax increases, I am concerned that unless extra financial resources are given to local authorities, they may be reluctant to fulfil their obligations under the Bill. I believe that a money resolution, which goes with the Bill, was laid and not objected to, so that may be possible.

If the funds were not available, licences might not be checked, complaints might not be followed up and the welfare of animals might suffer. It has been pointed out to me that, already, local authorities are not sufficiently equipped to fulfil their obligations to ensure animal welfare. Clearly, that is unacceptable. As the extra obligations stem from “the appropriate national authority”, that authority must be prepared to pay its share. I hope that the Government will seriously consider the difficult nature of the amendments and take them on board.

Mr. Drew: I agree with the hon. Gentleman: this is an important part of the Bill. When we were discussing orders to be made, I asked for the position to be restated; it is appropriate for the Minister to answer more fully on this point. It is crucial that we know what the role and functions of inspectors are. Experience and qualifications will play a key role. If the Bill means anything when it is enacted it will be tested by the people who have to deal with the various issues that we put before the Committee. It is not totally clear to me what we mean by “the inspector”—who that person is.

In another Committee of which I was a member we made changes regarding who takes in stray dogs; responsibility passed from the police to local authorities. Having subsequently been out with the RSPCA, I could quote a couple of examples from my constituency in which there has been rather a muddle since the change in the law, because the police rightly say, “It’s not our responsibility now. Ring the local authority”, and the local authority does not have a 24-hour service. The person then rings the RSPCA, which says, “Maybe we can take the dog and find a kennel temporarily, but it’s not our responsibility any more, because it is clearly down to the local authority.”

We need to be clear whose role it is and what experience that person has. I know that the Kennel Club wants someone with a national vocational
 
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qualification in animal care as an absolute minimum. After that, it is a relationship between that person and a vet, who could be called in when an animal was suffering or had been subject to abuse. Again, we need to think about who does what and what happens when things go wrong. I hope that the Minister will say a little more about that, because it will make or break the Bill.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I support amendments Nos. 187 and 59 tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster. I think that the arguments have been well rehearsed.

I also want to support amendment No. 48, and I declare an interest as a member of Kettering borough council. National Government must appreciate the sensitivity of local budgets to measures passed in this place. To give the Committee an example, an £44,000 increase in expenditure in Kettering borough would put 1 per cent. on the annual council tax. Therefore, the cost of appointing an inspector could have a serious implication for all council tax payers in Kettering. I hope that the Minister will take on board the sense behind amendment No. 48.

Mr. Bradshaw: The amendments would impose constraints on the way in which a local authority or national authority may appoint inspectors. In practice, an inspector will either be an officer of a local authority or a state veterinary service inspector, although an authority is free to appoint someone else if it wishes to do so. Only such inspectors and police constables would be able to exercise the powers of entry, search and seizure under the Bill.

Amendments Nos. 40, 59 and 187 would ensure that a person could be appointed as an inspector only if they had suitable training, knowledge and qualifications. We do not believe that to be necessary. An authority considering appointing someone as an inspector would have regard to such matters anyway. We cannot envisage an authority wanting to appoint someone as an inspector if it did not feel that the person was able to do the job properly.

Norman Baker: As someone who has experience of local authorities as leader of a council for a number of years, I, too, know that that is simply not the reality. The reality is that local councils faced with difficult financial constraints will, under certain circumstances, when presented with new legislation and a duty from Parliament, seek to discharge that duty in the cheapest way possible. They may well nominate as an inspector an existing officer in an entirely different post. The idea that inspectors will be properly trained simply does not hold up.

Mr. Bradshaw: I was going to deal with that eventuality. In case that is a problem, subsection (2), as the hon. Member for Leominster said, requires local authorities to have regard to any guidance issued by the appropriate national authority when they appoint inspectors for the purposes of the Bill. We expect that guidance to set out any relevant criteria such as qualifications, experience and training, especially in areas of difficulty, before inspectors are appointed.


 
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Amendment No. 41 would define an appropriate qualification, and we believe that it, too, is unnecessary. We prefer the flexibility of allowing the local authority to decide for itself whether a person’s qualifications are appropriate, but, if necessary, the national authority would issue guidance to help local authorities make that decision.

Bill Wiggin: We have spent a long time discussing the importance of the duty of care, and this is a duty of care by the Government to ensure that the sentiment that we have all expressed during our sittings is written into the Bill. We want a proper duty of care, so we must insist that those who are delegated powers by the Bill can also, because they are trained properly, exercise that duty of care. The flexibility to which the Minister refers is well intentioned, but it is a grave danger, and I hope that he will reconsider it.

Mr. Bradshaw: Amendment No. 48 would ensure that the appropriate national authority provided additional funding for inspectors. Licensing regimes under the Bill will be established on a cost recovery basis. Local authorities will be free to set the cost of a licence at the level they deem appropriate. The funds raised from the licence fee can be used by the authority to pay for the administration of the licensing system, including appointing and training inspectors.

Members of the Committee might know that officials in my Department are already working closely with the Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services and the state veterinary service on training inspectors. We are putting together a training package to help inspectors understand their new roles and responsibilities when the Bill is enacted. I am confident that it will help inspectors to enforce the Bill properly when it becomes law.

Amendment No. 60 is not necessary. Individuals will be placed on a list under subsection (3) only if the appropriate national authority considers them suitable for appointment as inspectors. No local authority would have to appoint people from that list if it did not also consider them appropriate for appointment. The point of such a list would be to help local authorities to identify individuals with a particular area of expertise. For example, there is little point in a person inspecting livery yards or riding stables if he knows nothing about horses. It is conceivable that, in future, such an individual could be a supporter or even a member of a charitable organisation, although if an individual were hostile to the activity that he would be inspecting, the national authority would not add him to the list anyway.

It would be foolish to deprive the local authority of the power to appoint an individual who may have considerable experience and expertise. If an individual employee of the RSPCA, or any other organisation, were appointed as an inspector by the national or local authority, when he exercised powers under the Bill he would do so in his capacity as a national or local authority employee, not as an RSPCA inspector.


 
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Only inspectors appointed by a national or local authority would qualify for the immunity to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Serving RSPCA officers will not be appointed as inspectors, although they might go with an inspector, but receive no immunity. On that basis, I urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

Norman Baker: I am disappointed by the Minister’s response to what is a core issue. The Committee has shown tolerance by accepting the Government’s view that their hands should not be tied and by recognising such measures as enabling legislation. It has been willing to take on trust several promises that have been made about specific issues and have understood the need to do so. We are discussing not a specific issue, but a core issue concerning the implementation of the Bill; I see no reason why such matters should not be written into the Bill. The Minister has not made a case for not doing so.

The wording of amendment No. 187 is identical to that of amendment No. 40. It states:

    “A person may only be appointed as an inspector under this section if he holds an appropriate qualification to be an inspector for the purposes of the provision in question.”

It is inconceivable that inspectors do not have an appropriate qualification. I fail to see the logic in not making such a provision part of the Bill. The Minister seems to envisage circumstances in which an inspector would not have an appropriate qualification. If he does not mean that, he should have no objection to accepting the form of words in the amendment. He then seemed to get into a tangle by saying, on the one hand, that local authorities should have flexibility to interpret such matters and presumably not to have inspectors with appropriate qualifications while, on the other hand, that national guidance may state such guidelines, in which case there could be no objection to the amendment.

The Minister gave the impression that there would not be proper guidance to start with and that he would wait to see how local authorities interpret the powers, but that, subsequently, at some distant date, if matters were not working out properly, he would look at issuing national guidance. That is the message that I received and it is not satisfactory. We want the Bill to be effective from day 1, and the clause is a core part of it. I hope therefore that the hon. Member for Leominster will press amendment No. 187 to a Division, or that we may press our amendment No. 40, because I am not convinced by the Government’s argument.

Bill Wiggin: Let us give the Government another chance. The hon. Member for Lewes is absolutely right. The way people treat their animals is key to what we mean by duty of care, and we must treat our legislative process in the same way. The idea that even one council could appoint someone who was not properly trained would represent a failure on the part of the Committee, which would have missed the chance to insist that people are at least properly trained. I wholeheartedly agree with him on that point.


 
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10.15 am

The Minister was helpful about inspectors. He made it clear who was covered by the exemptions and provisions of earlier clauses and who was not. I am a little bit unsure about the position of an RSPCA inspector, who is also a paid-up member of the RSPCA, and visibly so—a person who is employed or wearing the uniform, whatever his technical commitment. That is a grey area. A comment from the Minister would clarify that, because it is not a fundamental sticking point.

We need to be sure that when private individuals get a knock on the door, they are completely aware of who they are dealing with,  and in what capacity, in the same way that hon. Members with outside interests immediately declare them at the beginning of a debate. That sort of clarity would be helpful for animal owners, particularly as the Government have essentially shifted the responsibility for prosecuting on to the RSPCA. People should be aware of the level on which they are dealing with the human being knocking on their door. I should be grateful if the Minister said a little bit more about that for clarity—he touched on most of those points in his comments—otherwise, we may have to push one of the earlier amendments to a vote. I agree with my colleague, the hon. Member for Lewes.

The Chairman: The Minister has not indicated that he wishes to comment, so the hon. Gentleman must make his position clear.

Bill Wiggin: I made it very clear that if the Minister did not comment we were going to vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 10.

[Division No. 4]

AYES

Baker, Norman
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.

Clause 45 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 46

Conditions for grant of warrant

Norman Baker: I beg to move amendment No. 42, in clause 46, page 25, line 40, at end insert

    ‘for a period of 10 days’.

The clause relates to the conditions for the granting of a warrant and sets out four conditions, any of which would satisfy the granting of a warrant. Those
 
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conditions are relatively sensible. However, in respect of the third condition in subsection (4) there is no time limit set on the leaving of a notice in a conspicuous place on the premises. As a matter of good law, time limits ought to be set so that those who have premises understand what the time limit is and any court, in determining whether the third condition is met, would be able to state sensibly whether 10 days—under my amendment—had passed.

The absence of a time limit seems to leave open a defence that the notice applied to the premises was inadequate and therefore the condition was not met. It cannot be the Government’s intention to provide such a let-out.

I said 10 days, because that is a reasonable amount of time that appears elsewhere in the Bill. I have no objection if the Minister wants to say that that period should be five or 28 days, or another number, but a time limit needs to be set, and there is not one here.

Mr. Bradshaw: We are not sure that the amendment is necessary, for the following reason. If a constable, for example, suspected that a disused barn was the scene of an animal fight the night before, should he or she really have to wait 10 days before searching for evidence? We appreciate that the provision deals with premises from which the occupier is absent, as well as those that are unoccupied. It would certainly be wholly inappropriate in the case of unoccupied premises to require notices to be left for 10 days before access could be granted.

As to premises from which the occupier was absent, I do not think that a court would grant a warrant in the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about. If it was clear that the premises were usually occupied but that the occupier was temporarily absent, a court would inquire how long the notice had been left, and how long the occupier had been away, specifically to deal with the possibility that someone had gone away for a short time.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern, but we are not happy about tying the courts’ hands in that way. We think that they should exercise judgment in granting warrants. When judging whether to grant access to unoccupied premises they would need to consider whether those were likely to remain unoccupied. The hon. Gentleman spoke of other legislation, but similar warrant conditions exist in other Acts. For example, the Animal Health Act 1981, as amended in 2002, contains conditions for the granting of warrants, but imposes no minimum time limit for the leaving of a notice at unoccupied premises. I urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.

Norman Baker: I hear what the Minister says and understand his logic, although I do not entirely agree with it. Part of the reason for leaving a notice for a specified time is to provide clarity to the courts. It is also, frankly, protection for the owner. A visit might take place, and it might well be concluded that premises such as a barn were unoccupied, or that the occupier was absent, without the owner being aware of that. The placing of a notice for a set period would
 
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make what was happening clear to the occupier, if there was one, who might be there despite being thought to be absent.

A parallel situation would be a car that was believed to have been abandoned on a local authority highway, to which a notice was appended stating that it would be removed within a certain number of days if no action was taken. That would give the owner the opportunity to point out that it was not abandoned, as the local authority might have been led to believe, but was a car in regular use. Similarly, under the amendment, a notice would allow the owner, who might have been absent temporarily, and who returned to find a notice, to take action to demonstrate that the premises were not unoccupied. The Minister has not considered that aspect and I ask him to consider the point again, although, in the spirit of making progress, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 46 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 47 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 2 agreed to.

Clause 48 ordered to stand part of the Bill.


 
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Clause 49

Power to detain vessels, aircraft and hovercraft

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Norman Baker: I should like to ask the Minister a question: why is a hovercraft not included in the definition of a vessel? Why is it defined separately?

Mr. Bradshaw: Subsection (6) contains a delegated power—

It being twenty-five minutes past Ten o’clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at One o’clock.

                                                                                           
 
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