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Animal Welfare Bill debate - Sanctuary inspection and greater RSPCA powers

The vexed question of the licensing of animal sanctuaries was raised by many MPs, along with the question of who would inspect the sanctuaries. This neatly dovetailed into the question of whether this task would fall to the RSPCA and whether the charity’s inspectors should be given greater powers under the terms of the Bill.

Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con) made a strong point against interfering too heavily with sanctuaries, referring to Andy Meades’ Safewings Animal Sanctuary, although he did not refer to Mr Meades or the sanctuary by name, saying: "I wish to make a point that was made to me by a highly respected member of my constituency, who is the driving force behind a local animal welfare sanctuary. He said:

"It appears that the Government has released yet another unworkable piece of legislation that will undoubtedly have an adverse effect on animal keeping. All that appears to have come out of this new Animal Welfare Bill is seeing more power given to the RSPCA and more legislation and costs that cannot be absorbed into already stretched budgets by sanctuaries."

Those are not my words, but I thought it right to bring those views to the attention of the House.
Secretary of State Margaret Beckett responded: "Well, the Bill does not give greater powers to the RSPCA. The issue will, I am sure, arise in Committee, but it is our view that no responsible animal sanctuary will have any difficulty meeting the provisions in the Bill.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab) opined that licensing of sanctuaries was a very necessary part of the Bill: "Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that because of the increased duty of care that the Bill introduces, animal sanctuaries are likely to be needed far more in the future? As such, does she agree that we should bring forward the licensing of animal sanctuaries to offer that protection to animals? I was a co-sponsor of the private Member's Bill introduced a couple of years ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) on animal sanctuaries, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will follow up the main suggestions it contained.

Margaret Beckett responded: "My hon. Friend also makes an important point. I can assure her that we are prepared to look at the issue with some sympathy and I take her point that the Bill may result in a greater need for animal sanctuaries in the future… We have tried to involve interested parties in the development of those proposals and we believe that they are on a scale appropriate to the problems that they seek to address; but I take the points that have been made in interventions, which can no doubt be considered as the legislation is discussed.

"In most cases we intend to replace the existing 12-month licences with more flexible ones of no more than three years' duration. In some areas, with regard to animal sanctuaries, we are considering registration rather than licensing, although as I said we shall keep the issue under review. A more flexible approach should allow local authorities to target establishments according to risk, thus concentrating their resources where acceptable standards are not being met. It will allow vets and others to become involved without imposing unreasonable financial burdens on the activity that is being licensed or registered. Details of our proposals on secondary legislation are set out in the regulatory impact assessment. As I have already said, there will be full public consultation and scrutiny."

Mrs Beckett added, on the matter of RSCPA powers: "The Bill, like the legislation it will replace, will be what is perhaps somewhat infelicitously called a "common informers" Act, which means that anyone—a private individual or an organisation—can take forward a prosecution under its provisions if they think that they have the necessary evidence. However, powers of entry, search and seizure are reserved for the police, local authorities and the state veterinary service. The definition of an inspector is a person appointed to be an inspector by such an authority.

"During the pre-legislative scrutiny, there were a number of questions about the role of the RSPCA and its inspectors. As I said… the Bill does not give the RSPCA specific extra powers; indeed, it should be made clear that the RSPCA has not asked for any such extra powers. As is the case now, if the RSPCA has reason to believe that an offence has been committed and entry to a property has been refused, it will approach the police to ask them to use their powers of entry.

Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab) also urged caution in haste of licensing sanctuaries, pointing out: "I must declare an interest as I am a patron of two animal sanctuaries in north Cumbria. One is the Wetheral animal refuge, set up many decades ago by the well-known figure Alfred Brisco to provide a rest home for pit ponies, with the unfortunate slogan, ‘even pit ponies deserve a fair crack at the whip’. It is an excellent facility, is very professionally run and has provided a service in rehousing pets for many years. I am proud to be a patron of it. A much smaller sanctuary, Stonehouse, in Moorhouse in my constituency, is run by an amazing lady called Elizabeth McDonagh and many friends. It is a small sanctuary, known to the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment, who spent a pleasant afternoon there last year when visiting my constituency, and it takes discarded animals, whether farm animals, old greyhounds or ferrets—there are plenty of ferrets. It is very well run.

"There have been some horrendous cases, however, of people—I do not think that they are bad people—who have been overwhelmed by the demand to rehouse animals. They have reached the point at which they cannot cope, and there have been cases of cruelty. There is an argument about licensing and registration, and I think that we can probably get away with registration—the advantage of an enabling Bill is that if we are wrong, we can change it. The duty of welfare care will apply to sanctuaries as it will to anywhere else. We should therefore give it a try. There could be a difficulty whereby bureaucracy puts good sanctuaries out of business, but the matter must be considered."

Barbara Keeley (Worsley, Labour) added to the point that licensing of sanctuaries was vital: "We should certainly consider licensing for animal sanctuaries. Some very well meaning people, who have run what they call sanctuaries, have actually collected large numbers of animals in their house and been unable to look after them properly. Consequently, animal welfare has suffered. We need to deal with that problem and stop describing such places as animal sanctuaries."
Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup) (Con) acted as cheerleader for the RSPCA, saying: "When it comes to sanctuaries, not always are the best inspectors vets. I found it surprising that sometimes some vets can have a pretty hard-hearted approach to pets. I am not decrying the profession generally, but I have met a number of vets who have a pretty tough approach to animals. Although they would obviously care for them from a veterinary point of view, welfare was less of a strong point for them. When secondary legislation is brought forward, especially that dealing with sanctuaries, it is important that proper care and attention is given to the way in which animals are kept.

"Members receive a lot of lobbying from the RSPCA, which has its detractors. Sometimes it is more political than some people would like. My experience of working closely with it over seven years is that it means well and that the political dimension of its activities is only a small, although controversial, part of its work overall. The RSPCA undertakes a vast iceberg of work through its paid staff and also through voluntary helpers. It is remarkable. It is right that Members and Government advisers take note of the RSPCA's views."

David Ames (Southend West, Con) pointed out that the Bill really offered no provision for anyone other than the RSPCA to undertake ‘inspection’ duties, along with prosecutions for animal cruelty, saying: "Concerns have been raised about changes to the way in which animal welfare regulations are enforced through the introduction of inspection officers with new powers to transfer the custody of animals away from abusive owners. Currently, the RSPCA is the largest private prosecutor for animal welfare offences. It has been investigating abuses and enforcing laws relating to animals for more than 100 years in conjunction with the police, the State Veterinary Service and Customs and Excise. The Bill will not alter this process despite suggestions that the Crown Prosecution Service should be the sole instigator of prosecutions. The Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee considered the draft of the Bill in 2004 and concluded that, even though concerns have been raised about links between prosecution and the campaigning arms of the RSPCA, "there appears to be no body other than the RSPCA with the requisite experience to undertake animal welfare prosecutions" and the RSPCA "should be able to continue to institute private prosecutions on its own behalf."

"The training of inspectors is essential. There are not enough inspectors and the street-wise attitude which I suppose has developed only in terms of length of service somehow has to be shared with as many inspectors as possible."

There was a lively exchange between Norman Baker (Lewes Liberal Democrat) and Bill Wiggin (Leominster Conservative) on the subject of the RSPCA’s powers and its ‘dual role’ in animal welfare investigation and prosecution:

Norman Baker: "I want to pick the hon. Gentleman up on his point about the RSPCA. As I understand it, the organisation has been given no new powers under the Bill. Indeed, its representatives have told me specifically that they do not want any. In those circumstances, what is the problem with the way in which the organisation is operating, given that its welfare advocacy and prosecution roles appear to have been working quite well recently?"

Bill Wiggin: "The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The RSPCA has asked not to be given, and has not been given, more powers. It has, however, been given a huge range of offences on which to prosecute. That is the difference, because the Bill will give it a huge opportunity to pursue prosecutions, while at the same time, it will have a vast range of animal welfare jobs that are totally separate from its prosecution role. Those conflicting roles are the problem, rather than what it has done in the past or the question of extra powers. I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that. It is very difficult to go round raising money to fight court cases at the same time as trying to protect sanctuaries….The hon. Member for Lewes should not see this as an attack on the RSPCA, which is walking a very difficult tightrope."