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Animal Welfare Bill published

THE GOVERNMENT’S long-awaited Animal Welfare Bill was published last Friday to great excitement and interest from all groups and individuals concerned with animal keeping and animal welfare.

The Bill, which has been almost three years in the preparation, contains a great deal of detail, much of it relating to the prevention of cruelty and the promotion of better animal welfare, as well as increasing the penalties for anyone found guilty of causing suffering to animals.

Clauses such as the raising of the minimum age at which children can purchase a pet and the prevention of giving animals such as goldfish as prizes have been retained, despite earlier suggestions by some Ministers that these might be dropped, for fear of the Government being seen as ‘nannyish’.

The Animal Welfare Bill was described by Junior Environment Minister Ben Bradshaw as "the most significant animal welfare legislation for nearly a century."

One of the key elements of the Bill, a draft of which was published last year, introduces a duty on those responsible for animals to do all that is reasonable to ensure their welfare.

Many animal welfare groups believe the keeping of large wild animals, such as elephants, in circuses will be ended by the courts if that duty is enforced. Mr Bradshaw said groups such as the RSPCA , which have campaigned for a total ban on the keeping of large wild animals in circuses, "need not be too despondent".

He said: "Much of what they want to achieve will be made possible by the Bill." A new code of conduct governing circuses might take another two or three years but "certain practices could be deemed inimical to good welfare" with immediate effect once the Bill was passed.

A great deal of the Bill’s scope rests with secondary legislation which will be enacted after the Bill is passed. Livery yards, so-called ‘pet fairs’ (pet shows), pet shops, cat and dog boarding establishments will all require a licence under the Bill, which seeks to modernise powers currently set out in 22 separate Acts of Parliament.

The Bill, which only applies in England and Wales, will ban all mutilation of animals, such as the cropping of dogs' ears (even though this is already illegal in the UK), calves' tongues and horses' tails. However, there will be an exemption for castrating and spaying cats and dogs or ear-tagging cattle.

No Docking Ban

Crucially, the Government has decided not to push for a ban on tail docking in dogs, since it says sincere views are held by both those in favour and those against. This is an issue it has decided to let Parliament rule on. Opponents of a ban believe, however, that with a Labour majority that ritually sides with animal welfare groups the practice is likely to be banned, if not by an amendment to the Bill itself, then by secondary legislation.

This is in stark contrast to the Scottish Assembly’s own Animal Welfare Bill which sets out a ban on tail docking as one of its main aims.

The Government has decided to exempt angling from the Bill, after fears were raised that it could affect anglers and commercial fishermen. But fish are covered by a general ban on children under 16 buying pets or being given them as prizes in funfairs. Currently the age for buying a pet is 12.

Mr Bradshaw said there were lots of examples of children buying a pet without their parents' consent and the pet turning up in dogs' homes or animal refuges. He indicated the way that a code of conduct on the rearing of game birds might be drafted by saying that there was "concern" about the use of battery cages to rear game birds and this was "something we need to address".

Mr Bradshaw said that as an "enabling" Bill, which allowed further rules to be drawn up under secondary legislation, the AWB would allow ministers to "keep up with the times." However, many people involved in areas such as tail docking, animal shows and small rescue centres are concerned about the secondary legislation, which may enable some of the organisations with the Government’s ear to press for their own ‘hobby horse’ concerns. As things stand, the secondary legislation could even allow for a code of conduct for invertebrates, such as lobsters, in the future.

Undoubtedly, there is a need for greater animal welfare in many areas, but in order to achieve this the legislation may cause greater problems for animal enthusiasts and fanciers. With the Animal Welfare Bill, the devil is in the detail.