Increased sentencing for animal cruelty
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. I am pleased to say that the previous cap in the fine charges of animal abuse can attract has been removed.
The Animal Welfare Bill enshrines animal’s capacity to feel, perceive or experience in UK law. Animal abusers who commit the most despicable crimes could now face up to 5 years in prison. The change is a result of a number of recent shocking cases where courts have said that they would have handed down longer sentences had they been available.
Currently the maximum sentence is six months, but I am proud of the Government for bringing forward new legislation that increases the sentence tenfold. The increased sentence sends a clear signal to any potential offenders that there is no place for animal cruelty in England.
This Bill will mean animal abusers could face an unlimited fine and/or up to five years in prison, a significant increase from the current maximum sentence of six months. I am very pleased this will put us well above the European Average sentence for these crimes.
The new maximum penalty of five years is in line with campaigns by big animal welfare groups like Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, The Dogs Trust, and the RSPCA. In my view, this Bill is a hugely positive step forward in improving animal welfare and will act as a serious deterrent against cruelty and neglect. Crucially, I believe it will send a clear message that cruelty against animals will not be tolerated, with the maximum five-year sentence becoming one of the toughest punishments in Europe, strengthening the UK’s position as a global leader on animal welfare.
I understand the disappointment when the Bill fell due to the end of the Parliamentary session, however it has been re-included in the legislative programme and the Conservatives are committed to backing the Bill.
Animals as sentient beings
In 2017, MP's voted to rejected an amendment (New Clause 30) to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill which wanted Article 13 of Title II of the Lisbon Treaty to be permanently incorporated into law. Which led to a huge number of misleading and inaccurate headline like "Government votes that "animals can't feel pain or emotions". Of course I believe that animals are sentient and it was total nonsense to claim MPs voted against animals being sentient beings. This would have been an inferior piece of legislation which risked creating legal confusion, which we simply do not need as animals are recognised as sentient beings under domestic law. To suggest otherwise is completely absurd, regrettably some media have twisted the facts and intentionally misrepresented the vote. UK already has some of the best animal welfare standards in the world, and we intend to remain a world leader in the future. Our own UK Animal Welfare Act 2006 already gives us higher levels of animal protection than would've been offered by this amendment. For example Article 13 does not prevent Bull Fighting which is currently still legal in Spain, nor does it prevent Foie Gras production in France where birds are force-fed.
There should be no doubt that this Government is committed to animal welfare and by leaving the EU we will not abolish our already strong animal welfare laws. Instead it will allow us to develop more protections on animal welfare. Legislation will be brought forward when Parliamentary time allows, which will make any necessary changes to UK law in a rigorous and comprehensive way to ensure animal sentience is legally recognised after the transition period. This also includes ensuring the UK has an effective means of making sure animal sentience is reflected in future policy decisions. I understand that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is currently assessing how best to support Government departments in considering the welfare needs of sentient animals when they are developing and implementing Government policy, as well as continuing to engage closely with relevant organisations and authorities to enhance its policies on this issue further.
I am pleased that microchipping for dogs became compulsory for animals over eight weeks of age across England, Scotland and Wales in 2016. One year after the Government introduced this policy, the Dogs Trust reported a reduction of 18 per cent in the total stray dog population. In 2016, UK local authorities collected 81,000 strays, while in 2018 this fell to 56,000. It is now estimated around 90% of dogs are microchipped.
I am also pleased that the Government is committed to improving the welfare of cats and has a manifesto commitment to introduce compulsory microchipping of cats. Last year, Defra published a call for evidence on compulsory microchipping for cats, which attracted over 3,000 responses. I am aware that the responses are now being assessed, with a view to publishing the summary of these in due course. In the meantime, I would encourage all cat owners to make the sensible choice to microchip their felines, ensuring relevant records are kept up to date.
Microchipping has helped increase the number of lost pets reunited with their owners and I welcome the move by many local authorities to include a requirement in street cleaning contracts to scan pets found injured on the road for a microchip. All local authorities should already be in possession of handheld microchip scanners as they are required to enforce dog microchipping controls. In addition, Rule 286 of The Highway Code advises drivers to report any accident involving an animal to the police, which I hope would lead to their owners being made aware of the incident.
In its response to a recent petition on this issue, the Government noted this guidance but also said that it is considering proposals for the compulsory scanning of pets. In meantime, the British Veterinary Association (BVA) has undertaken to remind veterinary practices to scan dogs in line with best practice, and to help owners understand how important it is to keep their pet microchipping records up to date.
Finns Law/ Police Dogs
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 have 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.
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.
I am proud that the Government has supported Finns Law, a bill that makes it a specific offence to attack police or prison officer dogs and polices horses. It also removes a current provision for someone to claim self-defence if they have harmed a service animal. 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.
The law is named after a German Shepard police dog who was lucky to escape with his life when he was repeatedly stabbed when trying to catch a robbery suspect. Within weeks, he was back on the beat with his handler who claims that Finn saved his life.
Draft legislation was originally put forward as a Private Members' Bill by Sir Oliver Heald and has now been passed into law.
CCTV in Slaughter Houses
Last year it was announced that CCTV recording will become mandatory in all slaughterhouses in England, a move I fully support. The new legislation came into force on 4TH May 2018 and delivers the Government’s manifesto commitment for cameras in every abattoir in England in all areas where live animals are present.
All slaughterhouses will be required to comply in full by 5th November, following an adjustment period of 6 months to enable businesses to install a suitable CCTV system.
I am proud of the Government for taking steps to cement the UK’s position as a global leader in animal welfare standards. Animal Welfare Minister Lord Gardiner said:“ We are a nation that cares about animals and these strong measures will ensure all animals are treated with the utmost respect at all stages of life allows us to continue to lead the way to raise the bar in high welfare standards.”
Ban on third party kitten and puppy sales.
I am pleased that the Government are supporting a ban on third party puppy and kitten sales in England in order to drive up animal welfare standards. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have done an extensive consultation on an outright ban that will mean anyone looking to buy or adopt a puppy or kitten must either deal directly with the breeder or with one of the nation’s many animal rehoming centres.
The ban follows a commitment by the Prime Minister in December (2017) to crack down on cruel puppy farms and their conditions. The proposed ban on third party sales is part of a series of Government reforms on pet welfare with new laws coming into force on 1st October banning licensed sellers from dealing in puppies and kittens under the age of eight weeks.
I am glad that the Government proposed Ivory Bill set to come into law. It will see the sale of ivory of any age, with narrowly-defined and carefully-targeted exemptions for items which do not contribute to the poaching of elements. Through covering ivory items of all ages, the UK’s ban will be one of the toughest in the world.
According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, anyone caught breaking the ban will face up to five years in jail or an unlimited fine. A consultation of 10,623 people was carried out and 87.6% of respondents expressed support for the Government’s proposed ban with only 4.3% in opposition.
The ban is important as the number of elephants worldwide has declined by almost a third in the last decade and around 20,000 a year are still being slaughtered due to the global demand for Ivory. As profits become ever greater, the illegal wildlife trade has become a transnational organised enterprise, estimated to be worth up to £17 billion a year. The further decline of elephants would also deprive some of the poorest countries in the world of their valuable natural capital, affecting economic growth and sustainable development.
I am proud that the UK is showing global leadership in the international fight against the illegal ivory trade and building on their work both at home and overseas. The UK military is training African park rangers in proven poacher interception techniques in key African countries, and Border Forces officers continue to share their expertise in identifying smuggled ivory with counterparts worldwide to stop wildlife trafficking.
Armed Forces tackling poachers across the world.
A conservation crisis occurring around the globe is causing the loss of countless species, and one of the main factors behind this is the illegal wildlife trade, which drives the decline of many of Africa’s animals, including elephants, rhinos and lions.
The Government has taken a leading role in the international fight against illegal poaching through the deployment of Armed Forces to train and mentor park rangers in Africa. The efforts allow rangers to form a skilled network to ensure that the world’s special species are here for generations to come. British Army troops are teaching African park rangers tracking infantry skills, bushcraft and information analysis to improve the interception of poachers.
Poaching in Malawi is estimated to have halved the country’s elephant population from 4,000 in the 1980s to 2,000 in 2015. Funding provided by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ Illegal Wildlife Challenge fund facilitates training in a number of locations across the country. Through mentoring, the long-term goal of sustainable law enforcement efforts against poachers is becoming a reality.