As an animal lover and dog owner I'm am always horrified to see news stories of abuse and I am pleased that we have a robust legal framework to tackle this vicious behaviour in the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which makes it an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to any animal.
The law, and the penalties for breaking it, were reviewed by the Parliamentary Select Committee for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in 2012. At that time the Committee did not recommend increasing the maximum sentencing available to the courts. However, I am pleased to say that the previous cap in the fine charges of animal abuse can attract has been removed, and I can also tell you that the Ministry of Justice is now looking at whether there is a case for increasing the penalties further.
The courts must decide what the penalty should be for each individual case, taking into account its circumstances and the guidelines laid down by the Sentencing Council. Currently, in addition to the maximum penalty of six months' imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine, the courts can also disqualify offenders from keeping animals for as long as they consider appropriate. There has recently been a public consultation into sentencing guidelines for these crimes, which resulted in the Council confirming the removal of the cap on the financial element of the penalty, and clarifying a range of relevant factors that would indicate a more serious offence.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is in regular contact with the Ministry of Justice in relation to sentencing policy for animal welfare offences. While this issue is kept under review, recent experience does not suggest that the courts are finding their current sentencing powers inadequate. However the debate in the House of Commons recently resolved to call on the Government to increase the maximum penalty for animal welfare offences to five years, and I would be happy to support an increase if the Government proposed this.
I have received a number of letters and emails on this issue and I appreciate the strong feelings many people have on this issue and their concern for ensuring the welfare of animals.
Our borough of Castle Point is not a rural constituency and I would not like to second guess the needs of farmers though I am aware that fox numbers must be controlled in some areas. However, I am assured that there are more effective methods of dealing with the problem than hunting!
Personally, I cannot understand why anyone would enjoy fox hunting, I think the current law works perfectly well as it is and see no need to change it!
I can also assure you that Conservative manifesto has stated - as ever - there would be a "free vote" given to MPs on any change in the law. This means that it will not be 'whipped' and MP's would be free to make up their own mind. Therefore it is not a policy Conservatives would be pushed to support, in fact there is a large group called 'Conservatives Against Fox Hunting' which shows this is not a simple party political issue.
Police support animals make a valuable contribution in the detection and prevention of crime and in maintaining public safety. I am extremely grateful for the bravery and skill shown by police dogs and their handlers on a daily basis. Attacks of any sort on police dogs or horses are unacceptable and should be dealt with severely under the criminal law. I recently spent time with the Essex Police Dog Unit where I met a number of police dogs and their handlers. Police animals and their handlers do such hard work and have a lot of dedication to their roles. I am pleased to say that there is already legislation out there to protect police animals.
Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 an attack on a police dog or other police support animal can be treated as causing unnecessary suffering to an animal, and the maximum penalty is 6 months' imprisonment, an unlimited fine, or both. Indeed the financial element of the penalty was raised in 2015 from a maximum fine of £20,000. Similarly an attack on a police animal could be considered by the court as an aggravating factor leading to a higher sentence. Under some circumstances assaults on support animals could be treated as criminal damage which would allow for penalties of up to 10 years' imprisonment.
Sentencing guidelines were updated in January 2017 and now include a new aggravating factor of causing unnecessary suffering to an animal being used in public service or as an assistance dog under section 4 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006.
While the current penalties are appropriate, I agree that it is unpalatable to think of police animals as merely 'equipment' as the charge of criminal damage might suggest, and does not convey the respect and gratitude felt for the animals involved and their contribution to law enforcement and public safety. Work across Government is underway to explore whether there is more that the law should do to offer the most appropriate protections to police animals and all working animals.
On wider animal welfare issues I am pleased that my party will continue to take action. We will implement our proposed reforms on pet sales and licensing and will make CCTV recording in slaughterhouses compulsory. As we leave the European Union, we can take early steps to control the export of live farm animals for slaughter.