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14/1/02
New Welfare Bill will be far reaching

THE GOVERNMENT is considering the introduction of a far-reaching Animal Welfare Bill which will try to consolidate and update several pieces of legislation that exist in England and Wales to promote the welfare of all animals. The move would include animals which are farmed, kept in zoos and safari parks and also domestic pets.

The plan, which has been broadly welcomed by many animal welfare charities as well as specialist animal groups and organisations, many of which have been pushing for an overhaul of the animal welfare laws for some years.

At this stage, the Bill - which is being considered under the aegis of the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is purely as the consultation stage, and the views of interested parties and members of the public are being sought - largely through a large section on DEFRA's website which lists the main points of the proposed Bill in its entirety. DEFRA has already sent a consultation letter to many organisations for their input. Whilst organisations such as the RSPCA, Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, the British Veterinary Association, the National Canine Defence League and the Kennel Club come as no surprise on the List, many smaller-scale groups, including small livestock fancies such as the British Hamster Association and National Fancy Rat Society have been included in the initial mail shot, indicating that DEFRA has done its homework carefully and aims to secure as broad a base of expert opinion as possible, rather than limit itself to the narrower views of vets or animal charities such as the RSPCA.

Under scrutiny

Interestingly, the letter states quite clearly that certain areas of animal welfare, currently under scrutiny, including hunting with dogs, animals in zoos, "dangerous and unruly dogs legislation" or the contentious Council of Europe Convention on pet Animals are not included in the proposed legislation and DEFRA are not seeking views on these subjects. The issue of the welfare of laboratory animals is also sidestepped as being and remaining a Home Office responsibility. The laws protecting domestic or captive animals that the Government is specifically looking to consolidate and modernise are:

Protection of Animals Act 1911

Performing Animals (Regulation) Act 1925

Pet Animals Act 1951

Cockfighting Act 1952

Abandonment of Animals Act 1960

Animal Boarding Establishments Act 1963

Riding Establishments Acts 1964 and 1970

Breeding of Dogs Acts 1973 and 1991

Protection Against Cruel Tethering Act 1988

Breeding and Sale of Dogs (Welfare) Act 1999

As to why the legislation should be consolidated and modernised, the DEFRA statement says: "Since 1911 there has been an increasing public awareness that an animal does not suffer solely as the result of physical abuse caused by deliberate acts or neglect. There is equal concern about the quality of an animal's life and the need to have in place legislation that provides for animals' physiological and other needs. "Although it is felt by at least some animal welfare organisations that these needs have to an extent been addressed in the laws now in place for farm livestock, animals in transit, animals in scientific research and zoological collections, there appears to be a belief that the legislation for domestic or captive animals remains confusing, unwieldy and outdated.

"The Defra ministerial team considers that these concerns need to be addressed and that there is considerable scope to modernise and improve the legislation. Following the creation of Defra most of the animal welfare laws are now under one roof. This provides a unique opportunity to make progress towards the consolidation and modernisation of these laws. We wish to start this process by consulting widely with organisations and individuals about the welfare of domestic or captive animals. This will give us the opportunity to hear what changes you [the public] would like to see.

Following numerous communications in previous months from the public, DEFRA expects to receive comments pertaining to a number of sensitive animal welfare issues, including Animals in circuses, Pet fairs, the welfare of captive pheasants that are bred for shooting, the possible licensing of livery stables and yards, the mis-use of animals in bio-technological breeding and the keeping of exotic or dangerous animals as pets.

More contentiously, it is expected that comments will be received on raising the minimum age at which children can buy pets from pet shops. Currently the minimum age is 12, but it is expected that this might be raised to 16.

Highlighted

Tail docking - which, interestingly is included as part of the Council of Europe's Convention on Pet Animals is also highlighted, with DEFRA asking whether the docking of tails should be banned.

More "open questions" are listed by DEFRA, including several major overhauls to the Protection of Animals Act 1911, which is widely used by the RSPCA in bringing prosecutions. These include: The creation of a new offence of 'likely to cause unnecessary suffering' and increasing the powers available to the police when investigating allegations of cruelty. The document also asks:

Does the requirement in the 1911 Act to show that an animal has suffered before an offence is committed meet present day needs?

Should the powers of entry, search and seizure in the 1911 Act be extended or changed?

Should the power of arrest in the 1911 Act be extended to include a person who, without reasonable excuse, is present when animals are placed together for the purpose of fighting each other?

Are the maximum sentences provided for in the 1911 Act adequate?

Should the time allowed in the 1911 Act for proceedings to be brought before a court be increased from six months to two years?

Whilst many responsible animal owners would broadly agree with most of the sentiments expressed in increasing legal powers against people who cause animals suffering, many would also feel uneasy about the "sus" aspect of such legal changes which might lead to officials - either the police or the RSPCA - acting on the suspicion of "cruelty" which could be a subjective point and might be misused against the individual, as was the case with Section 1 of the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act.

DEFRA also asks whether animal sanctuaries should be licensed, although this question already forms part of a Private Members Bill being put forward for its second reading this month by Labour MP Ian Cawsey, (Brigg & Goole)

As to when such an Animal Welfare Bill might be considered by Parliament, DEFRA make sit clear that this would take some time: "The purpose of this consultation is to seek views on what an Animal Welfare Bill could cover. It is therefore the first step in a lengthy process. The comments that we receive in response to this consultation will be analysed and assessed. Ministers will then decide on whether to proceed and, if so, a draft Bill will be prepared. "

The RSPCA, which in 1999 rehomed 100,000 unwanted and rescued animals, commented that the Bill will go some way towards reducing the thousands of unwanted pets discarded by their owners each year. The charity wants the age restriction raised to 18 but believes 16 is a worthwhile compromise.

Meanwhile, Pat Crossland of the Pet Care Trust, the governing body of the majority of the UK's pet shops said: "While some children under 16 may be responsible enough to buy their own pets, many are not. This is about promoting responsible pet ownership."

Tony Crittenden, the RSPCA's Chief Officer of the Inspectorate seemed delighted at the prospect of increased powers for the charity's inspectors, saying; "We now have the chance to frame legislation that will allow us not only to prosecute those who are cruel but to use the law proactively to prevent cruelty, which after all is our reason for being."

David Wilshire, the Conservative chairman of the All-Party Group on Fairs and Showmen expressed his concern over giving increased powers to the police and RSPCA and his anger at the scant parliamentary time given to discuss such issues as pet shops and circuses.

"One wonders when the first official pet inspectors will be allowed to bust down the door looking to ensure the family cat is being properly looked after." Said Mr Wilshire, scathingly

Labour MP Ian Cawsey, chairman of the All-Party Group for Animal Welfare welcomed the plans for the Bill. "Obviously, I can't speak for what the DEFRA ministers may decide once the public consultation is over, but the usual procedure would be for a draft Bill to be published and then for it to be considered by a Select Committee, who would no doubt seek submissions from groups such as the Kennel Club.

"The All- Party Group for Animal Welfare will be discussing the Animal Welfcare Bill at our next meeting on January 15th. Bear in mind that our group has 120 members, which includes not just MPs, but also associate members form the Kennel Club, RSPCA, NCDL and others - so expert opinion is being used at every stage of proceedings."

The Council of Docked Breeds responded robustly to the consultation paper for its suggestion for a possible ban on tail docking as one element in a possible future Animal Welfare Bill.

"We would welcome a consolidation of Britain's animal welfare legislation, some of which is nearly a century old. However, if Ministers decide to proceed with changes to existing laws, we will resolutely oppose any inclusion of a ban on tail docking," said CDB Secretary Ginette Elliott.

"When carried out properly by a veterinary surgeon, docking is an insignificant procedure which is very important in preventing future traumatic tail injury in adult dogs. No cruelty is involved, and we do not believe there is an animal welfare case to answer."

Mrs Elliott confirmed that the CDB will be making detailed representations to Government and urged owners, breeders and handlers of Britain's 51 docked breeds to access the consultation questionnaire on the DEFRA website and to respond directly to animal welfare officials.

The whole exercise is likely to lead to a detailed re-examination of the Labour Party's links to animal groups. The party has benefited from significant donations from such groups in recent years. The Political Animal Lobby, which allied to the RSPCA have made donations totalling 1,150,000, including one huge donation of 47,582 just before the 2001 election. Whether this would influence the Government's priorities in an Animal Welfare Bill remains to be seen, but it might make certain groups feel uneasy as to where these priorities would lie. l

Comments on the proposals or any questions that you want to make should be addressed to Phil Alder, Branch F, Animal Welfare Division, Defra, room 606, 1A Page Street, London SW1P 4PQ.

Telephone: 020 7904 6756, Fax: 020 7904 6961 or e-mail AW_Consultation@defra.gsi.gov.uk

Responses should be sent to Branch F by no later than 30 April 2002.

When replying representative groups should provide a summary of the groups and organisations they represent.