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Animal Welfare Bill proposals outlined

ANIMAL SANCTUARIES may be licensed under new animal welfare legislation proposed by the Government last week. Dog walkers and pet sitters would also need to be licensed if the new laws are introduced.

Outlining the proposals for a new Animal Welfare Bill, Elliot Morley, the environment minister, denied that it was an ‘animal rights’ Bill. "This does not give your cat the right to sue if it does not get the comfy chair next to the fire and 10 snacks a day."

He also emphasised that the Bill would not be used to legislate on hunting with dogs or other field sports. That would be dealt with in separate legislation.

A new offence of neglecting the statutory duty of care of animals could not be seized upon by campaigners wanting to close down field sports or events which put animals' health at risk, such as the Grand National.

Mr Morley also recognised that there were concerns about children buying pets. He said: "Children get whims for pets and sometimes these whims do not transfer into the proper care and attention. Often they will buy a pet without parental permission and with no facilities at home, which leads to pets being abandoned. Pet ownership is a good thing, but it should be properly considered and with the support of parents."

Children of 12 can buy animals from a pet shop. Some pet shops do not sell animals to unaccompanied children. The new Bill will raise the minimum age that a child may purchase a pet to 16.

Duty of care

The Bill would ensure that pet shop owners advised customers that there was a duty of care towards the animals they bought.

"If someone buys a snake, he should also buy a whole package of advice on feeding and care for it."

The proposed new law will also apply to private cat and dog breeders who sell animals. The breeders will have an obligation to ensure that buyers are suitable owners and know how to care for pets.

The proposals are the result of consultation with nearly 2,500 individuals and organisations, including animal welfare campaigners, the police, vets and academics. They will update the 1911 Protection of Animals Act.

Ministers have been alerted to the growing number of people who care for pets as their main business but have no checks on their suitability to look after animals. Dog walkers are a feature of city life, seen in parks with seven or eight dogs. There is a trend for petsitters to be hired to look after animals when owners go away, instead of pets being to kennels or catteries.

The overhaul of the law would allow ministers to decide whether walkers and sitters should be licensed and subject to annual inspection. However, the new controls are unlikely to extend to informal arrangements with people who volunteer to look after a neighbour or friend’s dog or cat while they are on holiday.

Defra is also "looking again" at the Council of Europe Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals. The main components of the Convention could be included in the new bill. The Convention, among other things, would ensure that proper account is taken of welfare needs when setting breeding standards, in co-operation with breed societies. This is a highly contentious area which has seen the outlawing of certain cat breeds in other countries. For example, Germany has banned outright the breeding of blue eyed white cats for the fact that individual cats may suffer form deafness. Devon Rex cats have also been affected by this legislation which has prevented overseas exhibitors from entering rexes at German cat shows.

Mr Morley said: "I want the resulting Act of Parliament to stand the test of time. That is why it must be robust but flexible so that we can adapt with the times and in line with changing views. The 1911 Act set the pace for animal welfare in the 20th century. We now intend to set the pace for the 21st century.

"The British are generally animal lovers, but that doesn’t stop some horrific offences taking place. We want to stop cruelty, encourage good welfare and yet avoid the trap of excessive legislation. We recognise that few people are intentionally cruel to animals but rather more neglect welfare by failing to understand animals’ needs.

"Raising the age at which children can buy pets unaccompanied by an adult and the licensing of animal sanctuaries are two examples of useful steps, so that those responsible for animals are fully aware of what they are taking on."

Defra’s 16-week public consultation on animal welfare legislation, launched in January, generated nearly 2,500 responses from individuals and a wide range of stakeholders.

"Today we are also publishing a review of the scientific and veterinary aspects of tail docking in dogs. This is an issue which interests a lot of people on both sides of the fence.

Therefore, I believe it is timely that we take another look at the subject from a scientific and veterinary perspective. The conclusions indicate that, with the exception of a few specific health reasons, tail docking in dogs has no real benefits for the welfare of the animal.

"Under the new proposed bill, I do not believe there will be any place for docking of dogs’ tails for cosmetic reasons. There may be some occasions when tail docking may be necessary for welfare reasons and these should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

The Anti-Docking Alliance whose members include such luminaries as TV vet Emma Milne welcomed proposals to ban docking. The Alliance said that 52 breeds of dog are still being docked, mainly varieties of spaniel, sheepdog and terrier.

However, Mr Morley appears to have paid scant attention to views expressed by those who responded to the consultation process, said the Council of Docked Breeds.

More than half of the 33 vets who responded on docking said it should not be banned

All 113 dog breed clubs which responded, representing 12,744 members, said docking should not be banned

1590 members of the public commented on docking, 80% of whom opposed a ban on docking

"It is very disappointing indeed that Mr Morley has not taken more seriously the strongly held views of so many dog owners, breeders and veterinarians, and is intent on a ban,"
commented Peter Squires, President of the Council of Docked Breeds.

He roundly criticised the ‘scientific’ evidence which DEFRA offered to support a docking ban.

The paper, he said, was riddled with inaccuracy and inconsistency. It relied on comparisons with farm animals and highly partisan opinions which had not been subject to proper scientific peer review, and failed even to understand the current law on docking.

However, Mr Squires welcomed the acknowledgement by the Government that there are occasions when tail docking is necessary for welfare reasons.

"Mr Morley has said that these will be dealt with on a case by case basis. We are aware of many cases in which the failure to dock has resulted in serious tail damage, and there will be many situations in which it may be anticipated that dogs will be exposed to potential future trauma which could avoided by docking.

"We will be arguing strongly for the maintenance of the docking option and the right of dog breeders and their veterinary advisers to decide on those breeds and those situations," said Mr Squires.

A spokesman for the Kennel Club commented: "The Kennel Club is pleased to note that DEFRA will continue to keep the lines of communication open with regard to this issue before proceeding to the House. We very much hope that they will also continue to consider the need to ensure that the shortening of tails for working gundogs is given an exemption, should docking indeed be proscribed by Government."

Mr Morley said he would like to see the docking ban eventually extended to sheep and pigs. Farmers say it is necessary to prevent the spread of disease.

John Rolls, the RSPCA director of communication, said: "This initiative is a massive step forward for animal welfare. The 1911 Protection of Animals Act has served us well, but it only covers physical suffering and gives no assistance in preventing cruelty. Under the new legislation, the welfare advice RSPCA inspectors give would be backed by a statutory 'duty of care'. This would put the onus on owners to provide all animals with a certain standard of care.

"We believe that this new approach, combined with the RSPCA's ongoing work towards preventing cruelty through education, will be a major step towards the Society's stated aims of preventing cruelty and promoting kindness to animals. We trust that the government will be as forward thinking on the issue of hunting with dogs. In order for today's initiative to be complete, we also need a ban on hunting with dogs within this parliament."

Proposals welcomed

The RSPCA also proposed that people could only be prosecuted under the 'duty of care' if they had already been advised on the steps to be taken to meet it.

The RSPCA also welcomed the proposals to raise the minimum age for buying pets to 16, a ban on tail docking of dogs for cosmetic purposes and plans to licence animal sanctuaries to bring them into line with boarding kennels.

The next stage is a further period of consultation before a definitive Bill is drafted to be brought forward to the House.

All views will be taken into account in the drafting of the bill which will take some months.

There will be a series of meetings with the major stakeholders and Ministers hope to be able to publish the bill in draft in the first instance.

Mr Morley said: "I want to be open and transparent about what we are doing and why and it is important to take account of the needs of animal welfare professionals, those who have a commercial interest in animals and the general public, as we progress the bill. This is a lengthy process, and it is vital that it is not rushed.

"I am very encouraged by the overwhelming support our plans to modernise animal welfare have received so far and look forward to working with all stakeholders as we firm up details before proceeding to the House."

No date has been set for parliamentary time, that will depend on other business, although DEFRA have stated that it is hoped that, following the further consultation period, legislation would be introduced by the year 2004.

However, with a General Election expected the following year, it remains to be seen whether the legislation would reach the statute books in time for any new laws to take effect.