NEW ANIMAL welfare laws for Scotland, proposed by the Scottish Executive would introduce a ‘duty of care’ on every animal owner; raise the minimum age for buying animals to 16 and ban giving animals as prizes.
The Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Bill - which is based closely on the English Draft Animal Welfare Bill currently under consideration by the Westminster Government - would extend Executive powers to enter farms and slaughter animals in any exotic disease outbreak, such as foot-and-mouth.
Introducing a six-week consultation on the draft Bill earlier this week, Ross Finnie, the Rural and Environment Minister, said: "I want animal suffering to be a thing of the past in Scotland, and duty of care is the crucial part of this bill."
Duty of care emphasises that owning an animal of any kind is a privilege, not a right, and will allow official intervention in cases of neglect or potential suffering, instead of having to prove cruelty. Mr Finnie added: "When anyone does not comply with a duty of care, we will be able to remove the animal before it starts to suffer."
He went on: "Other measures, such as raising the minimum age for buying a pet and banning the giving of pets as prizes, give the clear message that owning a pet is a responsibility and commitment that must be thought through."
Commenting on whether some people might think it did not matter that goldfish are handed out as prizes, he said, then insisted: "But it does. It is completely wrong."
Mr Finnie’s words may haunt some DEFRA Ministers in England who pushed for dropping the clause banning the giving of goldfish as prizes from he AWB when it is published, for fear of the Government appearing too ‘nannyish’.
The Scottish legislation will retain a specific offence of causing unnecessary suffering, and there will be a general prohibition on ‘mutilations’, such as tail-docking of dogs, a measure which is sure to cause outrage amongst dog enthusiasts and incur lobbying from the Council of Docked Breeds.
The law prohibiting animal fighting is to be strengthened, and more businesses, such as animal dealers, will have to be licensed.
Prosecutions for animal cruelty indicate that Scotland has a relatively good record compared to the rest of the UK. There were 33 in 2003 and 34 in 2004. But that hides the fact that many cases of alleged cruelty, to pets and commercial farm stock, do not reach court because obtaining sufficient proof is difficult.
Leonara Merry, of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), said: "The absence of powers to remove animals from situations of neglect or potential suffering has impeded us in our main role of preventing cruelty.
"Duty of care is an important new provision to prevent unnecessary suffering."
Last year the SPCA investigated almost 8,000 cases of cruelty, neglect or abandonment.
Ms Merry added: "We particularly welcome proposals to raise the age for buying animals from 12 to 16, and to ban giving animals as prizes."
The pressure group Advocates for Animals gave a cautious welcome to the draft bill, particularly for keeping the existing prohibition against cruelty and causing unnecessary suffering and for the introduction of duty of care.
But it opposed extending Scottish Executive powers to take rapid slaughter action on farms if an infectious disease such as foot-and-mouth is diagnosed.
Meanwhile, Nigel Miller, the chairman of NFU Scotland’s livestock committee, said: "Cases of animal cruelty on farms are rare. When they do happen, it’s vital that the authorities have power to act quickly."
Angling as a cause of possible suffering is exempt under the draft proposals, whilst religious and ritual slaughter methods come under different legislation.