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‘Wide-ranging’ changes proposed to Welfare Bill

THE GOVERNMENT'S draft Animal Welfare Bill raises many important and often complex issues which must be resolved before the long-awaited final Bill is introduced to Parliament, according to a report released last week by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select (EFRA) Committee.

The Committee makes no less than 101 recommendations for changes to the draft Bill – but not all of these are likely to meet with approval from animal fanciers, animal sanctuaries, commercial breeders and, indeed, many pet owners in general.

At this stage, it is unclear whether the Government will even introduce the Bill in the current Parliamentary session which will end in May when it is likely that Prime Minister Tony Blair will call a General Election. If the Bill was under discussion at this time, it might well be lost due to Parliament rising.

Animal: a definition

Chief amongst the Committee’s concerns is to what exactly constitutes an "animal".
According to the report, the Committee believes that a strong case has been made for the inclusion of octopus, squids and cuttlefish, and of crabs, lobsters and crayfish, in the draft Bill's definition of "animal" (although the protections contained in the draft Bill would not extend as widely as the definition of animal). There is a risk that the draft Bill could extend to protect wild animals, living in the wild-for example, commercial and recreational angling could constitute an offence- and the Committee has recommended that the Government remedy this.

With hunting all but banned, it is clear that many anti-bloodsports groups and animal rights organisations are targeting pastimes such as shooting and fishing, so the definitions of ‘animal’ need to be tightened up and clarified to prevent the Bill extending ‘into the wild’.

Future regulations

The Committee was unconvinced by the Government's justification for the breadth of the powers that it seeks to have delegated to it under the draft Bill. The Government intends to use these powers to regulate on wide-ranging and significant areas of activity, including licensing pet fairs, greyhound racing tracks and the use of performing animals, and tail docking of dogs and rearing of game birds. The Committee states that it is disappointed by the Minister's reluctance to consider redrafting the powers and recommends that the Government should explicitly be required to consult on draft regulations, and that the Committee itself should scrutinise future draft regulations.

In respect of some of the areas on which the Government proposes to make regulations, the Committee commented as follows:

Pet fairs: DEFRA appears to have proceeded straight to the question of asking how pet fairs should be regulated, without first asking whether they should be clearly legalised. Before DEFRA proceeds with regulations, it should first consult on whether pet fairs should be made unequivocally legal.

Electronic shock collars and perimeter fence devices: it is surprising that DEFRA has not yet undertaken sufficient research into these devices, particularly given the controversy surrounding their use and the claim that they have been in use in the UK for 13 years. DEFRA should undertake consultation and research about these devices as soon as possible.

Rearing of game birds: DEFRA's statement that there is "little concern generally" about the welfare of game birds reared for sport shooting purposes is not supported by the evidence the Committee received. Before proceeding to regulate in this area, DEFRA should consult broadly.

Animal sanctuaries: The Committee state that all animal sanctuaries should be required to be licensed, regardless of their size. However, this will force many smaller charities and sanctuaries to close, as they cannot meet the criteria laid down by the Bill.

Performing animals: regulations should distinguish between the use of wild animals and domesticated animals in circuses, with a view to prohibiting the use of the former.

Greyhound racing tracks: The Committee recommends that all tracks should be subject to a licensing regime, as soon as possible. Regulation in this area should not wait until 2010 as suggested by the Bill. This suggestion is sure to attract the backing of many Greyhound welfare groups who have been calling for stricter regulation of the sport for many years, particularly with regard to severe welfare problems caused to ex-racing Greyhounds.

Tail docking in dogs: according to the Committee, tail docking in dogs should be banned for cosmetic reasons but permitted for therapeutic reasons. An exemption for prophylactic docking is acceptable provided that certain safeguards are met, including microchipping of docked dogs. However, DEFRA Minister Ben Bradshaw publicly stated last year that he did not consider a change to the docking law to be a necessity.

The Committee’s recommendations on the future of tail docking were welcomed by the Countryside Alliance, particularly with regard to the docking of working dogs.

A group of organisations including the Countryside Alliance made representations to DEFRA proposing that docking could continue for animal welfare purposes. The proposals were accepted by DEFRA and have now been endorsed by the EFRA Committee.

Alliance Chief Executive Simon Hart commented: "We are extremely pleased that the Committee has accepted our proposals on this issue, as there was serious concern that the EFRA committee would support a ban on all tail docking.

"It is widely acknowledged that many working dogs - not only shooting dogs, but terriers, and those used in falconry, by the army, by the police and by HM customs - should have their tails docked at a young age in the interests of animal welfare."

OFFENCES AND PROSECUTIONS

The Committee is critical of the drafting of the key offence provisions in the draft Bill. The draft Bill would appear to allow certain acts that should be prosecuted, such as unnecessary suffering caused to an animal as a result of negligence or neglect, or unnecessary mental suffering - to go unpunished. It would appear to downgrade existing legal protections in certain cases: for example, the Committee has expressed concern that the current law on the abandonment of animals would be significantly weakened.

The report calls on the Government to recognise the gravity of certain offences in the draft Bill by increasing sentencing powers, in order to give the courts the ability to impose longer sentences in appropriate cases. The Committee believes that the most serious animal welfare offences should result in an automatic disqualification order on the owner.

LIKELY IMPACT OF THE DRAFT BILL

The Government's assessment of the impact of the draft Bill (known as the RIA) is described by the Committee as "excessively simplistic". The Committee considers that the RIA fails to demonstrate what measurable benefits would arise from enactment and provides only weakly evidenced and limited cost information. This indicates that DEFRA is not yet properly prepared to legislate in this area.

The Committee welcomed the opportunity to consider the draft Bill but expressed further concern that it came before Parliament for pre-legislative scrutiny without the Government having first conducted its own consultation process. DEFRA last consulted on the policy proposals underlying the draft Bill two and a half years before its publication.

Rt Hon Michael Jack MP, Chairman of the Committee, said: "Any change in the law as it affects animals always arouses powerful emotions and great public interest. This draft Bill is no exception. My Committee welcomes the development of an approach to animal welfare which doesn't just wait for a problem to occur but enables action to be taken to protect animals before irreversible suffering takes place. However, the draft Bill very much had the feel of a 'work in progress' and, before the Government further advances its legislative plans into areas such as pet fairs, circuses and game birds, it must give a cast-iron guarantee that an obligation to consult will be enshrined in law. The Government must work hard to take the rough edges of its initial proposals before the Bill is introduced to Parliament."

The Government's draft Animal Welfare Bill was published on 14 July 2004 and is available at http://www.official-documents.co.uk/document/cm62/6252/6252.htm

The full report is available on the DEFRAWebsite: http://www.parliament.uk/efracom. It is also available from the usual outlets, including the Stationery Office bookshops (reference: First Report of the Committee, Session 2004-05, HC 52).

OUR DOGS will be publishing detailed extracts from the Draft Animal Welfare Bill in coming issues, together with comments from interested parties on specific clauses