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A new beginning

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IT has been nearly five years in the making, but the Animal Welfare Act finally made it on to the statute book on November 8 and will come into effect in April next year. The new legislation has been widely welcomed, and rightly so. Described by ministers as ‘the most fundamental piece of animal welfare legislation for nearly a century’, it consolidates and modernises a number of existing laws governing the welfare of domestic and captive animals, most notably, perhaps, the Protection of Animals Act, which dates back to 1911. It brings the law relating to non-farmed animals more into line with that already in place for farmed animals and, significantly, places a duty of care on the owners and keepers of all vertebrate animals to ensure that the needs of the animals for which they are responsible are met. By making it an offence to fail to provide for the needs of an animal, it should make it possible for enforcement agencies to take steps to prevent animal suffering, rather than only act afterwards as has been the case until now.

The animal health minister, Mr Ben Bradshaw, said that the Government believed that, by extending the duty of care to non-farmed animals, the new legislation would ‘reduce animal suffering in this country’. The new Act represented the culmination of several years' work during which the Government had worked closely with stakeholders; the result, he said, ‘is legislation of which we can all be rightly proud’. The Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr Debby Reynolds, said that the new Act would ‘help to improve the way people look after their animals’ and that it formed ‘an important part of our overall strategy on animal health and welfare’.

With the introduction of the new Act an important milestone has been reached and the sense of achievement is palpable. However, it would be wrong to believe that, with Parliament having given its approval, the work stops there. First, this is primarily an enabling Act, and its future effectiveness will largely depend on secondary legislation and codes of practice which have still to be developed and agreed. Equally important will be how effectively the legislation is enforced and how well it is understood, by both those responsible for enforcing it and those expected to comply with it. As with any legislation, implementation will be all-important, and it is essential that the necessary effort and resources are devoted to this area.

The new Act is intended to provide a flexible framework which will allow the rules to be updated in the light of advances in scientific knowledge and animal welfare practice. This will be achieved through the secondary legislation and codes of practice, which will provide guidance for animal keepers and help enforcement agencies deal with welfare cases. The Government intends to deal with a wide range of activities by these means, and some of the issues raised are likely to prove contentious. Matters to be dealt with include the licensing of dog and cat boarding establishments, livery yards, riding schools, pet fairs and pet shops (including sales over the internet), and the registration of animal sanctuaries. Others include the rearing of gamebirds, the tethering of equids, circuses and performing animals, racing greyhounds, and dog breeding. Discussion in some of these areas is well advanced, but in others it has hardly begun.

Ensuring that the legislation is properly understood and effectively enforced across Great Britain will not be made any easier by the fact that the legislation now agreed for England and Wales differs from that already agreed in Scotland. The basic principles are the same, but there are important differences in detail, as illustrated most spectacularly perhaps by the different positions on the docking of dogs' tails. Such divergence is anything but helpful and, as well as causing practical difficulties, can only lead to confusion about which rules apply where. There must be concern that further examples may arise as secondary legislation and codes of practice are developed separately in the devolved administrations: every effort must be made to avoid this, and to ensure that the rules are compatible. In addition, a concerted information campaign is necessary to make sure that the public and the enforcement agencies understand the rules, and that roles and responsibilities are clear.

The new legislation clearly presents challenges for the veterinary profession, some of which were discussed at the recent Universities Federation for Animal Welfare/bva ‘Quality of life’ seminar in London (VR, September 30, 2006, vol 159, pp 430-433). It also presents challenges in terms of informing the public about their duty of care to their animals, and this is an area where initiatives such as the ‘What makes my pet happy?’ leaflet from the bva Animal Welfare Foundation* can help.

None of this is to say that the Act is not welcome or that there is not considerable scope for progress to be made. It's just that, rather than representing the end of a process, its coming into law marks the point at which work must really begin.

    Footnotes

    • * The ‘What makes my pet happy?’ leaflet has been produced by the bva awf to help veterinary practices communicate to the pet-owning public the practical relevance of the new legislation and what is meant by duty of care. Copies were distributed with The Veterinary Record of September 30. Practices can obtain copies in batches of 50, free of charge, for display in their waiting rooms. Details are available at www.bva-awf.org.uk

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