Wide ranging powers of inspection planned
AFTER MANY months of speculation, rumour and scare mongering, the Government’s much-vaunted Animal Welfare Bill was published last week, writes Nick Mays.
Greater protection for animals is promised, along with harsher penalties for those convicted of cruelty to animals.
A statutory ‘Duty Of Care’ will be expected and enforced for the ownership of all pets. As expected, the minimum age at which children may purchase pets has been raised from 12 to 16, and goldfish will be banned as prizes at funfairs.
However, contrary to some of the wilder speculation that has abounded, people will not be fined or imprisoned for stepping on slugs and snails and other invertebrates. RSPCA Inspectors will be given extra powers, but it is still unclear whether or not they will be permitted to enter private premises without a warrant of entry to seize an animal merely on the suspicion of cruelty, as the Bill has seemingly contradictory clauses relating to this point.
The Bill also imposes a ban on ‘mutilations’, such as the docking of dogs' tails - with exceptions only where there are welfare or management reasons.
There will be a new duty of care on pet owners, including the directors of companies, to look after animals properly. For the first time the law will define what constitutes cruelty. Pet owners and farmers convicted of failing in their duty of care may be disqualified from owning animals.
An animal's welfare is defined as consisting of a suitable environment in which to live, adequate food and water, the ability to display normal behaviour, housing with its own species and appropriate treatment for pain or disease.
Government inspectors and the police are to be given wide-ranging powers to enter premises and vehicles and to confiscate pets to enforce these standards.
The biggest change will be the new Duty Of Care placed on animal owners.
The RSPCA said that it was delighted. "Getting this new welfare offence on the statute books has been the RSPCA's prime objective and will represent the single most important piece of legislation affecting captive and domestic animals since 1911, when the Protection of Animals Act became law," it said in a statement.
The ban on mutilations, such as docking dog tails, is to protect more than 40 breeds that currently undergo this practice. It will be outlawed within a year of the bill being passed, unless carried out by a vet for therapeutic reasons. There are criteria for docking the tails of working dogs.
The maximum penalty for cruelty has been increased to 51 weeks in prison and a £20,000 fine, from six months' imprisonment or a £5,000 fine.
If and when it comes into force, the new Bill will replace existing animal welfare legislation including almost the whole of the 1911 Protection Of Animals Act, all of its amendments and various minor Acts such as: the Pet Animals Act, the Cockfighting Act and the Protection Against Cruel Tethering Act.
In her foreword to the Bill, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Margaret Beckett describes existing legislation as outmoded and inadequate for today's society, she says:
"It was the United Kingdom which introduced the first parliamentary legislation for animal welfare in the world and our laws have a long history of protecting animals from cruelty.
However, much of the key legislation currently relating to non-farmed animals was drafted in the nineteenth century and, despite a number of subsequent amendments, fails to provide animals with standards of welfare appropriate for our time."
Duty of care
The Bill provides a new and clear definition of cruelty and encompasses the concept of a 'duty of care’ that is to be imposed on owners and keepers of animals.
Under the Bill, all animal keepers would have to provide adequate accommodation, nutrition, treatment and care. It would be possible to intervene to ensure that non-farmed animals, although not currently suffering, are kept in such a way that avoids likely suffering - for example intervening to prevent suffering of dogs or horses that are tethered unsupervised.
Additionally any keeper of an animal would now commit an offence if he permits another person, such as a child, to cause that animal to suffer.
Sale of animals
The age at which a child can buy an animal will rise to 16. It will also be illegal to offer animals (such as goldfish) as prizes - since it is unlikely that the new keeper will have the facilities in place to provide proper care.
Powers of entry
Powers of entry to seize animals will be extended to allow inspectors to enter domestic premises without a warrant where they have reasonable belief that an animal is suffering or is even likely to suffer in the future. However, there are many clauses relating to this point and some appear to contradict each other – undoubtedly this section of the Bill will be subject to a great deal of debate.
Annexed to the Bill and related to the offence of 'mutilation', is a proposal to ban or restrict the docking of dogs’ tails and in the long term, to breed out characteristics that make a dog or cat more prone to suffering. The proposal suggests that these measures would have some effect on the incomes of both veterinary surgeons and specialist breeders. Many canine and feline enthusiasts have seen this as a plan to end more ‘extreme’ breeds, as outlined in the European Convention for Pet Animals, although Animal Welfare Minister Ben Bradshaw has previously made clear that he does not consider this to be an issue for Government intervention, but dealt with by better husbandry and breeding practices.
The Bill also addresses the issuing of licences proposing that local authorities should licence the organisers of pet fairs (bird fairs, reptile fairs) in similar manner to existing pet shop licences.
This would require fairs to provide similar standards of welfare to those of pet shops and would inevitably lead to additional costs to the organisers.
Some smaller sanctuaries, rescues and unregulated livery yards - which will now also be subject to licensing, have expressed concern that the costs of meeting new regulations might put them out of business.
Welcoming the publication, Tim Greet, President, British Veterinary Association, said: "By the very nature of our work, with our scientific and practical expertise, vets are in the front line of animal welfare. Indeed at present successful prosecution relies almost entirely on evidence from a vet. For this reason we particularly welcome the imposition of a 'duty of care' on the keeper of any animal and the decision to modernise and re-define the offence of cruelty. No vet should ever again need to stand in the witness box trying to define concepts such as 'cruelty' or 'suffering'.
"We also welcome the decision to impose a ban on mutilations, but will need to see just what limited exceptions the Government has in mind with regard to tail docking of dogs.
"It has often been said that owning an animal is a privilege, not a right. With the publication of this bill, and the recent launch of the animal health and welfare strategy, the Government has provided the opportunity for society to make this a fact."
The Kennel Club was initially very guarded in its response to the Bill, particularly with regard to its clauses on tail docking and breeding practices.
A KC spokesperson told OUR DOGS: "The Kennel Club, while regretting that DEFRA has not taken account of its views on tail docking, nevertheless views it as a great success that the Government has acknowledged that dog breeders should, in most respects, be left alone to breed their dogs without excessive legal or government intervention. Many of the animal welfare organisations had tried to persuade the Government to sign up, lock stock and barrel, to the European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals. This would have been a threat to many breeds and to many dog breeders. The Kennel Club has fought hard to avoid this.
It is therefore heartening indeed to note that the Animal Welfare Bill document states
‘There was widespread support from welfare groups for breeding out excessive and potentially harmful characteristics that have been bred into some breeds of dogs, e.g. the squashed face of the British Bulldog. However the view of DEFRA veterinarians was the resolution on harmful characteristics that had been included in the Council of Europe Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals was flawed and needed to be overhauled before it could become a basis for legislation. This view was supported by the Kennel Club.’
‘DEFRA has also recognised what the KC has been telling them for some time, namely that the breeding out of problem conditions is a long term project and is best dealt with voluntarily by the Kennel Club and the breed clubs. Again the Welfare Bill document states
‘A proposal to phase out certain characteristics in cats and dogs that make them more prone to suffering is considered proactive and in keeping with the intentions of the Bill. Breeding out of characteristics must be seen as a long-term objective that can only be achieved with the co-operation of breed societies. The Kennel Club are currently taking this work forward for dogs and we consider this is an area where government would want to encourage voluntary schemes rather than rush in with regulations.’
‘In the docking arena, the Kennel Club will continue to fight the corner of all docked breeds, but in particular those working dogs which would be adversely affected by a docking ban.
‘The success of the Kennel Club in helping to protect the independence of breeders to carry out their breeding programmes without government intervention, will depend on the future progress made voluntarily. A spokesman for the Kennel Club said ‘The achievement so far is good and we regard this as a great success. But this is just the beginning. We as dog breeders, have to go on proving to Government and to the animal charities, that we are all as breeders and judges, tackling these issues in a proactive and responsible way. We mustn’t let up now – there is still a great deal to do.’
Dogs Trust Chief Executive, Clarissa Baldwin, said: ‘As the UK's largest dog welfare charity we have high hopes that the Animal Welfare Bill will actually make a difference to the lives of all animals, including the 6.1 million dogs in the UK.
‘The most important part of this draft Bill is the "Duty of Care" section which makes responsible ownership a legal entity - something animal welfare charities have been calling on for decades.’
Ben Bradshaw, the junior environment minister, said he hoped the Bill would lead to less cruelty and fewer prosecutions. "What this Bill does not do - and I am someone who regularly empties his slug trap - is fine people £30,000 for stepping on a snail or for killing a slug," he said. "It applies to vertebrates only, not to animals in the wild and only to animals kept by people."
The new measure ‘sends a message that buying a pet or owning a pet is an act of responsibility’.
Mr Bradshaw added: ‘If you win a goldfish at a fair you are not necessarily thinking through the consequences of having to look after it. You might not have a tank. A lot of goldfish that are won at fairs end up on the compost heap.
‘There was a feeling, not least among responsible animal keepers and animal owners, that more needs to be done to prevent cruelty happening in the first place and to encourage responsible pet ownership.
‘If a dog or a horse is tethered for a considerable length of time, it is not actually suffering through the tethering but it is being kept in a way which will lead to suffering, if action isn't taken.
‘This is a Bill about prevention. One of the reasons I hope it will be welcomed is that it is far better to intervene to stop an animal being kept in a way that will lead to its suffering than to wait until it has suffered.’
MPs on the Commons environment, food and rural affairs committee are to carry out pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Bill.
The Blue Cross, Britain's Pet Charity, welcomed the Government's proposed overhaul of animal welfare legislation.
As one of the UK's oldest animal welfare charities, the Blue Cross played a part in bringing about the original 1911 Protection of Animals Act. While this piece of legislation has served the cause of animal welfare extremely well over the last century, it now needs updating.
The Blue Cross hopes that the 'duty of care' principle will encourage responsible pet ownership. Many of the animal welfare cases it sees are the result of pet owners poor awareness about responsible animal ownership. Last year it launched All About Pets, a national pet care information service providing expert advice and support for pet owners. It already aims to ensure the welfare of Britain's pets by promoting responsible animal care.
The full range of All About Pets literature is available to download from our website www.allaboutpets.org.uk