THE GOVERNMENT’S long-awaited Animal Welfare Bill is due to be published next week and already the national media has seized upon a few of the Bill’s better provisions, such as the raising of the minimum age at which children can buy pets from the ages of 12 to 16.
The Bill will also make it a crime, punishable in some cases by a year’s imprisonment, for goldfish, rabbits and other pets to be given away as prizes at fairs.
However, many newspapers, such as the Daily Express used the news as a way of hitting out at the Government saying it had bigger fish to fry, with issues such as crime and the NHS needing greater priority than ‘banning pets’.
A leaked copy of the Bill, ‘obtained’ by some newspapers shows that it will introduce a ‘duty of care’ of owners towards animals, although this provision has been known for many months and has appeared in all draft phases of the Bill and published in OUR DOGS and other specialist publications. People who abandon pets will be liable to prosecution, although this is a tightening up of the existing 1911 Protection of Animals Act.
However, publication of the bill, earmarked for July 14, may be overshadowed by a row over Government spin. The documents show that ministers have been planning to leak the Bill’s contents before presenting it to MPs in the Commons.
In a memo last week to Peter Hain, Leader of the Commons, Margaret Beckett, the secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, said: ‘Articles will appear in Sunday papers in the run-up to publication, on some of the bill’s provisions, e.g. the ban on under-16s buying pets . . . and the introduction of a duty of care.’
The disclosure will irritate Michael Martin, the Commons’ Speaker, who has reprimanded ministers for trailing announcements to the press before telling Parliament on a number of occasions.
The explanatory notes accompanying the bill reveal that all 4,500 pet shops in England and Wales will be banned from selling pets to under-16s.
‘There are concerns that children purchase animals on a whim without realising how to look after the animal and possibly without parental consent.
‘When the child loses interest in the animal its welfare may suffer or it may even be abandoned. Such purchases can arise from fads.’
The law change will require buyers to be given information leaflets on how to look after their pets and is intended to ensure that children do not own animals without their parents’ supervision.
The notes say: ‘The bill aims to encourage people to think carefully about an animal’s welfare needs before becoming its owner or keeper and it would be inconsistent with this aim for an animal ever to be a prize.’
People could be banned from owning pets if they are found to be responsible for an animal’s suffering.
The bill provides no protection for wild animals such as those killed by hunting, shooting or fishing.
The types of ‘kept animal’ protected may at a later stage be extended to cover invertebrates such as insects or even slugs. In her leaked memo, Beckett says that the new provisions would eventually apply to ‘any type of animal, vertebrate or not . . . in the light of future scientific evidence that it can suffer pain or distress as a result of deliberate cruelty or neglect’.
Owners may also find themselves facing prosecution even if their pet is not actually suffering. They could be jailed for keeping their cat or dog in such a way that suffering will ‘probably’ occur. However, this segment of the Bill has been overlooked by the mainstream press and is being seen by many animal enthusiasts as a ‘sus’ law which will allow agencies such as the RSPCA carte blanche to raid homes merely on the suspicion of animal cruelty. Again, this has been reported extensively in OUR DOGS many months ago.
At present domestic pets are protected by laws formulated in the 19th century. Ministers want to overhaul the legislation and bring in a type of reform implemented in countries such as New Zealand and Sweden. The move was welcomed by animal welfare groups and the Kennel Club. A KC spokesman said: ‘It’s a great idea that there will be more teeth in animal welfare legislation. The problem at the moment is that inspectors have to see evidence of cruelty actually having happened before they can act.’
However, the Countryside Alliance said it had big doubts and was concerned about how the principle that pets were owed a ‘duty of care’ would be interpreted and enforced.
The latest official figures show that 1,006 people were prosecuted in 2002 for offences under the protection of animals act; 768 were found guilty.
In the same year the RSPCA rescued or picked up more than 194,000 animals and investigated 114,004 cruelty cases.
When OUR DOGS reported on the Bill’s planning and consultation stage two years ago, Pat Crossland of the Pet Care Trust, the governing body of the majority of the UK’s pet shops welcomed the plan to raise the minimum age for buying a pet , saying: ‘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 then 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.
Former Animal Welfare Minister Elliott Morley was very enthusiastic that the Bill should also outlaw tail docking for dogs, although his successor Ben Bradshaw has taken a much more laid back approach and said that this year’s Crufts show that he didn’t have a problem with tail docking as the law currently stood.
Ministers are to give the bill to the environment, food and rural affairs select committee for scrutiny before introducing it into the Queen’s speech in November. Wide ranging consultation with specialist animal clubs, charities and animal enthusiasts has already taken place, although how many of their concerns and suggestions have been taken on board remain to be seen when the Bill is published