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Animal welfare bill - but no ‘bill of rights’

THE GOVERNMENT’S much-vaunted Animal Welfare Bill was in the news last week when the consultation period on the Bill formally closed at the end of April. However, a great deal of consternation and speculation was caused when several national newspapers ran stories proclaiming that the Government aimed to introduce a special ‘charter for animals’ or, as many put it, a ‘Bill of Rights for Animals’.

A report in the Daily Telegraph was typical of these, saying that new welfare laws to protect pets and captive animals were welcomed but it was questioned whether a “Bill of Rights” was necessary or enforceable.

The article stated: “Under the changes to be proposed.... pet owners, farmers, circus managers and pet shops could face prosecution if they fail to provide animals with adequate food and water and space in cages...

“There are about seven million dogs and eight million cats in British households but the RSPCA, which admits its 328 inspectors would find it difficult to enforce the legislation in every home, believes the laws would provide guidelines and a code of conduct to prevent animal neglect.”

The article went on to quote Professor Michael Reiss, a bio-ethicist at the Institute of Education at London University, who said: “This is a very contentious issue. If pet rats and mice have rights then it raises the question of the way we treat farm animals, vermin and fish.

“There are also millions of broiler chickens living in constant pain and misery. Once you start down this path it is hard to know where to stop.”

Dr Lewis Thomas, a retired veterinary pathologist, said: “I just hope the Government doesn’t think of extending this ‘Bill of Rights’ to wildlife. It seems that anything this Government does is unreasonable, silly and unenforceable.”

Animal Welfare Minister Elliot Morley announced to the House of Commons that the consultation exercise was now concluded, but studiously avoided making any kind of pledges, nor did he make any reference to a ‘Bill of Rights’ for animals.

Mr Morley dismissed suggestions that the new law would be aimed at pet owners who kept a cat in a flat, which did not have a garden to roam in. Mr Morley said the next stage would be to publish a draft Bill setting out proposals for updating the law.

There are currently 11 Acts of Parliament governing the welfare of pets and farm animals. The Government has been looking at the possibility of creating a new offence of “likely to cause unnecessary suffering”.

Current legislation requires evidence that an animal has suffered before an offence is committed.

The RSPCA, which has been consulted by the Government, is pressing for power to prosecute owners if it was shown that they had broken the accepted standards for a minimum quality of life for captive animals.

The RSPCA wants a new “duty of care” so that anyone in charge of an animal had a legal responsibility to meet those minimum standards. It is pressing for “five freedoms” to be adopted for pets and circus animals.

It argues they should be entitled to freedom from hunger and thirst - enough good food and water to keep them healthy; freedom from discomfort - comfortable cages or resting areas; freedom from pain, injury and disease - and rapid veterinary treatment if they are ill; freedom to express normal behaviour - so they have enough space and company; freedom from fear and distress - treatment that avoids mental suffering.

Ann Grain, head of press relations at the RSPCA, said: “We are here to prevent cruelty to animals and not to prosecute people. We believe these proposals would lead to a reduction in prosecutions and the bureaucracy they involve.”

The whole ‘Bill of Rights’ story appears to have grown out of a press release issued by the RSPCA last Monday (April 29th), along with the release of the RSPCA’s annual animal cruelty statistics, but pre-empting Mr Morley’s statement.

A ‘Bill of Rights’ was not mentioned as such, but a ‘Duty of Care’ was outlined in line with the ‘Five Freedoms’ which all animals should enjoy. (See feature elsewhere this issue).

OUR DOGS spoke to Phil Alder of DEFRA, who has been undertaking receipt of all communications during the consultation stage of the Bill. Mr Alder said: “I can categorically confirm that DEFRA, not Mr Morley has any intention of introducing a ‘bill of rights’ as referred to in the press recently. This appears to have emanated form some other source. All communications from all parties are now being sifted through and considered before the draft law is even framed.

“There have been no decisions taken as to what may or may not be included in the Bill.”

OUR DOGS’ Chief Reporter Nick Mays spoke to Ann Grain, head of Press at the RSPCA and put some direct questions to her regarding the ‘Duty of Care’ charter which the charity would like to see introduced, preferably as part of the draft Animal Welfare Bill:
Nick Mays: It has been mentioned (in some publications) that the RSPCA wants to ensure that all cats are allowed to roam and have an adequate area for them to exercise. As the owner of several much-loved cats myself, I have to say that none of my cats ever goes outdoors, nor wants to. There are dangers in doing so, and indeed I have lost one cat to a dog attack. Are you saying that I would now be acting illegally in providing a safe, secure environment for my cats, who are well cared for?

Ann Grain: All animals should have basic needs provided for - drawn from the Five Freedoms [outlined by the RSPCA] but they must stated in a clear and achievable way. We have recommended that the Government creates a body whereby any interested parties can submit a code of practice and at that stage it will be made clear how each specific issue will be covered.

NM: With regard to the minimum standards of housing etc for cats, rabbits, rats etc, has the RSPCA consulted with any specialist organisations and fancies on these animals’ requirements?

AG: Everyone should have an opportunity to say what would be in their standards. We haven’t developed the specifics - that’s for the Government to do.

NM: How would these minimum standards be enforced?

AG: The laws will be enforced in the way they have always been enforced. And the RSPCA would follow up complaints in the way we have always done.

NM: If somebody was found to have a Gerbil or a Rat in what an RSPCA Inspector considered to be “inadequate” housing, would these animals be confiscated and the owner prosecuted for neglect? AG: Each case is entirely dependent on the facts related to it. If a pet gerbil or rat is suffering the owner may be prosecuted for neglect. However, this is only done on a case by case basis. It is not appropriate to make general statements. Our proposal for new laws covers the principle that all pets should have basic needs met, including proper food, water and accommodation.

NM: Most people would agree that stiffer sentences and bans on animal keeping are needed for serious cruelty offenders. But is it true that the RSPCA is seeking the power to enter a person’s premises - without a warrant - on the mere suspicion of animal cruelty being perpetrated or about to be perpetrated? Surely this is a form of ‘sus’ law?

AG: We agree that we would like see increased penalties for certain categories of cases and greater use of lifetime bans. However, in our proposal we have not sought to gain entry into premises without a warrant. We have, however, asked for clarification of police powers in the area of animal welfare.

NM: If all smaller animal rescues and charities are licensed and have to pass some sort of test, would this not, in some cases, compromise animal welfare? Several small rescues (which I have spoken to) take in animals which the RSPCA cannot, for whatever reason, take in. Some of these charities and rescues refuse to put animals to sleep simply because homes cannot be found for them, which of course, the RSPCA has to do in some cases.

AG: It is only right that institutions taking in animals meet certain criteria in providing for these animals. The Government has made statements recognising the issue of small sanctuaries and is keen not to see them close down.

NM: If a “Duty of Care” was enshrined within the Animal Welfare Bill, who would decide or arbitrate on what is adequate care? Would this be the RSPCA alone?

AG: The ‘Duty of Care’ should come from a code of practice that has been adequately consulted upon.

Ms Grain added: “Just to reiterate, a lot more work needs to be done before codes of practice are drawn up for any species, and that would have to be done as part of a wide consultation process. Any interested body would be entitled to submit draft codes to the government for consideration. At this stage, the RSPCA is merely putting forward as a principle the duty of care expected based on the recognised Five Freedoms - as outlined in our recent press release.”

* Last week, Animal Welfare Minister Elliot Morley said in his speech at the PAC Conference that he had a “responsible and thoughtful discussion with the Kennel Club regarding docking, the European Convention and other issues.” With reference to the European Convention, he went on to say that he feels that many issues are covered by the Animal Welfare Bill already, and other matters he feels “can be resolved with the Kennel Club and dog breeders directly.”

On the same day of the Conference, and to bolster the above comments, he conducted a ten minute interview on Radio 2, the Jimmy Young Show, 30/4 at 12.00 hours, and Mr Morley said on the European Convention and the breeding of some dogs: “The Kennel Club accept this is an issue and believe that defects can be bred out, so were not talking here of banning or ending a particular breed of dog. It is possible to deal with these genetic issues, and also to set show standards which mean that people aren’t tempted to breed an animal in a way which causes them suffering. This is a responsibility for the Breed Societies.

The Kennel Club is taking this very responsibly and I’ve been very encouraged by the very constructive attitude of the Kennel Club. I think we can tackle this without eliminating breeds. There are some examples of breeds that have had problems that have now been resolved through careful breeding so this can be dealt with. It is quite right and proper that we do give some thought to the Convention but does not involve any kind of banning of breeds...”