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Welcome Bill on welfare

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INTRODUCING its Animal Welfare Bill in Parliament last week, the Government described it as ‘the most significant animal welfare legislation for nearly a century’. It doesn’t happen very often, but for once the reality could live up to the hype. The new Bill pulls together and modernises a number of existing laws governing the welfare of domestic and captive animals, ranging from the Protection of Animals Act 1911 to the Breeding and Sale of Dogs (Welfare) Act 1999, and removes some of the loopholes in the legislation as it stands. It provides an important opportunity to improve animal welfare by placing a duty of care on owners and keepers of all vertebrate animals – not just farmed animals – to ensure that their animals’ needs are met. In line with the ‘five freedoms’ this will involve: providing a suitable environment; providing adequate food and water; allowing the animal to exhibit normal behaviour; allowing it to be housed with, or apart from, members of its own or other species; and giving appropriate protection from, and providing for diagnosis and treatment of, pain, injury and disease. Owners and keepers will commit an offence if they fail to take reasonable steps to ensure their animal’s welfare and meet its needs in an appropriate manner, which means that it should be possible for enforcement agencies to take steps to prevent animal suffering before it occurs, rather than only act afterwards, as is currently the case.

As well as defining an animal’s needs, the Bill sets out the circumstances in which a person causing an animal to suffer commits an offence, and matters to be considered by the courts in determining whether suffering is unnecessary. All this is helpful, and should leave less room for argument when prosecutions are brought.

The proposed legislation gives powers to the police, government and local authority inspectors to take and care for animals in distress, and to alleviate their suffering. These powers will be exercisable on the basis of a certificate from a veterinary surgeon, except in cases of emergency, where no certificate will be needed. Enforcement officers will also be able to enter premises (but not a private dwelling unless they have a warrant) where they reasonably believe that an animal is in distress.

Anyone committing an offence under the new legislation could also face tougher penalties than at present. Under existing legislation, most offences carry a maximum sentence of six months’ imprisonment and/or a £5000 fine. The new Bill proposes that the maximum penalty for animal cruelty and fighting offences should be raised to 51 weeks’ imprisonment and/or a fine of £20,000.

Other features of the Bill are that it increases from 12 to 16 the minimum age at which an unaccompanied child may buy an animal, and prohibits the giving of pets as prizes to unaccompanied children under the age of 16. It also bans mutilations of animals, with certain specified exemptions. On the question of docking puppies’ tails, the Government has shied away from a ban, while leaving scope for discussion when the Bill is considered by Parliament. It remarks: ‘Sincere views are held by those who both support and oppose a ban on docking, and we take the view that it would not be for government to alter the status quo and that it is an issue for Parliament to properly decide.’

A key aspect of the proposed legislation is that it provides a flexible framework through which secondary legislation and codes of practice can be introduced, and that it extends the existing power to make secondary legislation to promote the welfare of farmed animals to non-farmed animals, bringing legislation for non-farmed animals in line with that for farmed animals. Such flexibility is important in that it will allow the law to be updated in line with future advances in scientific knowledge and animal welfare practice, although it will be important that provisions are properly enforced. The Government intends to deal with a whole range of matters through secondary legislation and codes of practice, clarifying issues relating to, for example, the licensing of dog and cat boarding establishments, livery yards, riding schools, pet fairs and pet shops, the registration of animal sanctuaries, the rearing of gamebirds and the tethering of equids. Clearly, there will be much to consider as new regulations are introduced, and appropriate interested parties must be fully consulted on as these are developed.

The Animal Welfare Bill has been in development for the best part of four years, during which it has undergone a number of changes as a result of both public consultation and prelegislative scrutiny by the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. There is no doubt that animal welfare legislation needs consolidating and updating. The principles behind the Bill are sound, and it deserves the support of Parliament.

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