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The Animal Welfare Bill: A ‘work in progress’

THE ANIMAL Welfare Bill is one of the most eagerly-awaited and potentially ‘loaded’ of all the Labour Government’s legislation to date, apart from, arguably, the Hunting Bill. The Animal Welfare Bill (AWB) has taken a long time to materialise even in draft form, since it was first mooted in 2002.

Since that time the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has been in wide-ranging consultations with interested parties, including animal welfare organisations and charities, governing bodies of various animal fancies, including the Kennel Club, Governing Council of the Cat Fancy, the British Rabbit Council and so on, and also receiving input from individual pet owners. It wasn’t until Autumn 2004, over 2 years since the legislation was first mooted that a draft Bill was published – and even after that time it was subjected to close scrutiny by a Government-convened Committee.

So where does the Animal Welfare Bill stand now? Is it likely to be enacted? Are some of the more outlandish rumours about its impact true?

The worrying rumours include such suggestions as:

l The RSPCA assuming draconian powers to enter a person’s home on the mere suspicion that animal cruelty may be perpetrated, and seizing that person’s pets.

l All animal sanctuaries being licensed ‘to RSPCA standards’. If any sanctuary falls short of this definition, then they will be closed down. This will sound the death-knell for many smaller animal sanctuaries, many of which care for animals that the RSPCA and other larger charities such as the Dogs Trust and Cats Protection do not cover.

l Pet animal shows will have to be licensed, particularly if animals are sold there. Failure to comply will mean animal shows being banned.

Over the past two years, OUR DOGS and its sister newspaper OUR CATS have examined many of the above rumour and, counter-rumours, many of which result in official denials from DEFRA and the RSPCA. But tellingly, the rumours don’t seem to go away, and the pronouncements from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee that examined the Bill late last year and issued no less than 101 recommendations for its improvement and clarification do little to assuage the worries of animal enthusiasts.

Sanctuary… or Not

In January, the political magazine The Spectator published a hard-hitting article entitled ‘Animals Don’t Have Human Rights’ by Jeremy Clarke. The article focussed largely on the work of Andrew Meades, veteran bird rescuer and proprietor of Safewings Wildlife Sanctuary at Isham, near Kettering, Northants.

The article states: ‘This year [2004] Mr Meads and his wife Jaqui have taken in more than a thousand birds from 64 species and released 751 back into the wild. The birds were brought to Safewings by policemen, vets, by PDSA and RSPB officials and by members of the public. Conspicuously absent from the above list of referrers, however, is the RSPCA.

According to the article, Meads believes that the RSPCA has ‘become a secretive and hegemonic organisation… with an anti-pet agenda’.

‘In evidence he cites the RSPCA's overweening interest in, and influence on, the drafting of DEFRA's Animal Welfare Bill, the most comprehensive piece of animal legislation since the 1911 Protection of Animals Act, which will be introduced in the current session of Parliament. Under proposed legislation, sanctuaries like Safewings will be required to register with the local authority, produce a veterinarian plan, and be subject to inspections. And which agency will carry out these inspections? '"Why, the RSPCA, of course," said Mr Meads. So half the birds at Safewings will have their necks wrung because they are either imprinted [socialised] or disabled and therefore fall under the RSPCA's crazy euthanasia policy.’

Although the Spectator article takes an aggressive stance in its denunciation of the AWB, it makes the assertion about the RSPCA taking increased powers with the Government’s blessing:

‘Inspectors selected by local authorities - in other words, the RSPCA again - will be given powers of entry and a mandate to intervene in cases where they consider an animal or pet is not enjoying any of its Five Freedoms. They will also come knocking if they consider an animal is 'likely' to suffer at some point in the future - if you're under 16, and you've won a goldfish at the fair, for instance.’

The article prompted an angry response from the RSPCA’s Director General Jackie Ballard who wrote that the article "contains so many inaccuracies that it is virtually a fact-free zone".

Ms Ballard declared: The suggestion of Andrew Meads, Mr Clarke’s source, that the RSPCA will be responsible for licensing wildlife sanctuaries is incorrect. Licensing is traditionally the responsibility of local authorities, and the Animal Welfare Bill will do nothing to change that. RSPCA inspectors will have no role in licensing. Crucially, the Bill does not give RSPCA inspectors the right of entry or intervention that your article describes. The Society has not asked for any new powers in the Bill, nor has it been granted any.

"Nor will birds in sanctuaries fall under the RSPCA’s euthanasia policy and have their necks wrung. The RSPCA has no objection whatsoever to sanctuaries providing high-quality long-term care for wild birds which are socialised or disabled. Even if the RSPCA were to have a role in the proposed licensing/registration scheme for sanctuaries (which it will not), this apocalyptic prediction would still be utterly wrong"

DEFRA, meanwhile, remain somewhat enigmatic on who will be responsible for the licensing of sanctuaries and, indeed, the matter of increased power for animal welfare inspectors. Queries as to clarification on this matter to Ben Bradshaw, the Minister responsible, are deflected by the reply that the AWB is at draft stage only and that there will be greater clarification as the Bill progresses in its course through Parliament.

That much is, in fact true – the AWB, although mentioned in the Queen’s Speech in November 2004 has not been formally placed before Parliament, nor is it likely to be until after the General Election, expected in May this year. Even then, the placement and timing of the Bill will have much to do whether Labour is re-elected and, if it is re-elected, what its majority in the new Parliament will be and what its legislative priority will be.

Sounds fishy

Meanwhile, the Government have been accused of ‘going soft’ on one of the main animal welfare planks of the AWB when it backtracked on a clause to outlaw the practice of giving goldfish away as fairground prizes was been abandoned. New Labour spin doctors and party officials fear that the party might be accused of running a nanny state leading to ridicule in the run-up to the General Election.

But ministers were said to be poised to shelve plans for a ban, for fear of being accused of gratuitous meddling less than four months before an expected general election. The most likely outcome is a compromise that will still let children win their goldfish, but only if they are accompanied by someone over 16 years of age.

Ian Cawsey, Labour MP for Brigg and Goole and Chairman of the cross-party The Associate Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare commented: "I think some senior figures were panicking a bit and worrying that we’d be seen as interfering in tradition. My take on it would be to amend the Bill simply to say that goldfish can be awarded as prizes at fairs, as long as the stallholder provides all the necessary equipment to keep the goldfish housed properly and healthy – a proper aquarium tank, gravel, water weed, food, a net and so on. Of course it’s unlikely that they’d give that lot away as a prize, so they’d simply stop offering goldfish as prizes."

It is understood that Paul Boateng, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, was one of several ministers to have urged Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary, to alter the Bill. The Government's toning down of this part of the Bill is particularly ironic when only a few weeks previously, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee (EFRA) spent several hours and devoted many inches of page space in an official report into the classification of lobsters, crayfish, crabs and squids as sentient animals.

101 recommendations

The report into the AWB produced by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select (EFRA) Committee contained no less than 101 recommendations for changes to the draft Bill - but not all of these were likely to meet with approval from animal fanciers, animal sanctuaries, commercial breeders and, indeed, many pet owners in general.

Chief amongst the Committee's concerns was 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.

Pet shows – for dogs, cats, small mammals, fish, and reptiles – could also be under threat. The Committee designates such shows as ‘Pet Fairs’ and seemed to be under the impression that they exist largely to allow fanciers to sell excess stock to the public. Although such sales do not take place at dog and cat shows, limited sales sometimes take place at small mammal shows, for example. However, most clubs and governing bodies issue strict guidelines covering the sale of animals, particular on animal welfare grounds.

The EFRA Committee posed the point quite clearly showing their mindset: ‘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.’

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.

The 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."

But will it work?

Ordinary pet owners might do well to consider some of the implications of what is being suggested, because, with sad inevitability, what may originally have been perceived as a good law designed to improve animal welfare often gets subsumed by the political and idealistic concerns of powerful lobby groups, with the end result that there’s plenty of restriction and control of people’s activities, but precious little practical animal welfare advantage.

The real animal welfare advantages of the Animal Welfare Bill may be few and far between… whenever it is enacted.

* The Government's draft Animal Welfare Bill was published on 14 July 2004 and is available at cm62/6252/6252.htm

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