SPECULATION WAS rife at the beginning of this week as to the contents of the Government’s much-vaunted Animal Welfare Bill, which was due to be published on Wednesday.
Amongst the alleged clauses, the Bill would ensure that people who mistreat animals would face fines of up to £20,000 and year-long prison sentences, whilst RSPCA inspectors will be given powers to enter premises without a warrant, even by using force, to rescue animals believed to be suffering or at risk of harm. Inspectors would also gain the right to enter without a warrant any lorry, ferry, plane or hovercraft carrying animals.
This has been included because of the growing awareness of the suffering of livestock on long journeys. However, RSPCA inspectors entering a private home without a warrant would need to be accompanied by police.
Anyone owning a pet, farm or exotic animal will have a statutory ‘duty of care’ towards it and could face having it taken away and being banned from looking after another. Unborn animals will receive the same protection.
More controversially than that, even, the legislation would allegedly offer protection to creatures such as insects, slugs, worms, caterpillars and butterflies if scientific evidence proves that they suffer pain and distress.
The draft Bill, which updates the Protection of Animals Act 1911, was originally overseen by former Animal Welfare Minister Elliott Morley but will now be presented by his successor Ben Bradshaw, who has had significant input into the Bill, and has toned down some of its more wide-ranging clauses. For example, the draft Bill contained no reference to banning the docking of dog’s tails, nor did it contain any references to the welfare of circus animals.
Whitehall sources insist, however, that ministers plan secondary legislation to deal with these issues later. As OUR DOGS revealed this year (a fact then picked up on by newspapers such as The Times), Mr Bradshaw does not believe in a total ban on docking and wants to reach agreement with breeders on which breeds of working dog would be exempted before introducing any sort of ban or restriction on the practice.
He said at the time: "I am looking for a way to get the balance right. It seems odd to me that we allow human circumcision and we should not be over-draconian in terms of animal welfare law. I want sensible, but useful and meaningful, reform."
The RSPCA said that it would continue to campaign for a ban on tail docking except when a vet orders it for therapeutic reasons. The charity is also unhappy about circus animals and hopes that this will be looked at again.
The Countryside Alliance expressed concern that the law would be interpreted for animals used for sport or recreation. Even though the changes are not intended to affect hunting, shooting or fishing, the alliance fears animal rights campaigners could attempt to use them in relation to dogs in hunt kennels, racehorses in stables and pheasants reared for game shoots. A spokesman said: "The law could be taken too literally. If people can be prosecuted for causing their pets psychological distress then a man could be arrested for having a depressed dog."
However, the alleged clause to prevent cruelty to slugs and snails provoked fierce criticism from gardeners. John Cushnie, a regular panellist on Radio 4's Gardeners' Question Time, said some aspects of the legislation were nonsensical. "To give worms and slugs protection under the law is ludicrous. If I have an infestation of slugs or snails or cabbage white butterflies then I will get rid of them in whatever way I choose. No one is going to tell me that the things are suffering. If I want to boil them alive, stamp on them or treat them to a slow drawn-out death by poison then I will - and would like to see the Government that would try to interfere with a man and his garden."
OUR DOGS spoke to the RSPCA on Monday of this week to separate fact from fiction and see what clauses the Bill was most likely to contain.
Press Officer Becky Hawkes said: "Although we haven't yet seen the draft Animal Welfare Bill yet we will be absolutely delighted if a 'duty of care' offence is included. Getting this on the statute books has been the RSPCA's prime objective for many years, and will represent the single most important piece of welfare legislation affecting captive and domestic animals since 1911. We believe that all those in charge of an animal owe it a 'duty of care', and this new welfare offence will reflect the change in society's understanding of, and attitudes towards animals over the last century.
"We believe this new offence will act as a great deterrent to those who inflict cruelty through neglect, resulting in the prevention of severe suffering in a huge number of cases."
On the subject of the controversial ‘right of entry’ issue, Ms Hawkes added: "We have neither called for, nor expect, any greater powers ourselves. However, we do believe the police should be able to enter premises (including a vehicle but not a dwelling house) in order to search for and seize evidence, where there are reasonable grounds to suspect an offence, or where they need to attend a diseased or injured animal."
Turning to some of the more likely clauses to be included, which seem to be accepted by most animal lovers, Ms Hawkes said: "The RSPCA believes children should not be allowed to buy one until they are 16 years old. Sometimes children buy animals on impulse and without the consent of their parents, simply because they look cute or to follow a trend. Yet they might not have the right accommodation needed to keep the animal, or it might prove too expensive and time consuming to look after - leaving it unwanted and possibly neglected.
The decision to have a pet is a serious one, which should be carefully considered by all the family, to ensure that the animal can be cared for properly for its entire lifetime."
And the alleged clause protecting garden pests?
"The RSPCA thinks the Animal Welfare Bill should cover all sentient animals - currently there is no scientific evidence to include insects, for example, in that category. In any cruelty prosecution, it must be proved with expert evidence that the animal has suffered - and this can only be done with sentient creatures," said Ms Hawkes. "That is not to say we would condone cruelty inflicted on any animal - including invertebrates."