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IT IS hard to believe that the Animal Welfare Act is almost 10 years old. However, this year marks the 10th anniversary of the Act, which finally reached the statute book in November 2006, after several years in development. Hailed by ministers at the time as ‘the most fundamental piece of animal welfare legislation for nearly a century’, the new Act streamlined and modernised a number of existing laws and brought the law relating to non-farmed animals more into line with that already in place for farmed animals. Significantly, it broke new ground by placing a duty of care on the owners and keepers of all vertebrate animals to ensure that the needs of the animals for which they were responsible were being met. By making it an offence not to provide for the needs of an animal, the new legislation aimed to make it possible for enforcement agencies to take steps to prevent animal suffering, rather than only act afterwards, as had been the case until then.
Ten years on seems like a good point to assess how much progress has been made, so a recent announcement by the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRACom) is welcome. The committee announced last week that it intends to hold a series of short inquiries on animal welfare. The first of these will focus on domestic pets, including cats, dogs and horses, while issues surrounding exotic pets will be considered at a later date (see p 161 of this issue).
Issues to be considered during the inquiry are: the effectiveness of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 regarding domestic pets; regulation surrounding the sale of pets, including online sales and advertising; enforcement of current animal welfare legislation, including prosecution of offences by the police, local authorities, the RSPCA and others; and comparative approaches to enforcement in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
To be effective, legislation, no matter how well it is drafted, needs to be fully implemented, widely understood and properly enforced. Although ground-breaking in many ways, the Animal Welfare Act was, and still is, primarily an enabling Act, implementation of which depends on developing secondary legislation and appropriate codes of practice. When the Act was introduced, secondary legislation and codes of practice had still to be developed and, although progress has been made since 2006, this has often seemed slow and there is still much to achieve. For example, Defra is only now consulting on revised regulations to govern dog breeding and other animal-related businesses (see VR, January 16, 2016, vol 178, p 52). While helpful, and despite all the complexities, this is something it might usefully have done sooner.
Owners' responsibilities towards their animals are defined under the Act on the basis of the Five Freedoms, that is, ensuring that their animals' needs are met in terms of a suitable environment; a suitable diet; being able to exhibit normal behaviour; being housed with, or apart from, other animals; and being protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease. It is axiomatic that, if owners are to fulfil these responsibilities, they need to know what they are, and one might have hoped that, 10 years on, awareness of these responsibilities would have increased. However, the latest PDSA Animal Wellbeing report (for 2015) indicates that the basic welfare needs of millions of pets in the UK are not being met and that the number of pet owners who are familiar with the legislation is at an all time low (VR, November 28, 2015, vol 177, pp 528, 529-530). The role of education in raising owners' awareness of their responsibilities was recognised when the Act was introduced in 2006 but, despite the efforts that have been made by animal charities, professional associations, government and others, this is clearly an area which demands more attention.
The importance of effective enforcement was also recognised when the legislation was introduced, with concern being expressed that insufficient resources would available for this (VR, April 7, 2007, vol 160, p 453). Those concerns remain, not least in view of the effects of the recession on charities' finances and continuing attrition of the resources available to local authorities for enforcement in terms of personnel and funds. Defra's current consultation on the licensing of dog breeding and animal-related businesses rightly argues that there may be scope for reducing the burden on local authorities by simplifying the law and introducing more flexibility into the arrangements. However, there is a limit to how far you can go with this. Also, it is important that changes are made for the right reasons. There must be no reduction in standards as a result of any changes, and this must not simply be used as a cost-cutting exercise.
The Animal Welfare Act provides a good framework for strengthening rules relating to animal welfare. However, with a government that is reluctant to resort to regulation except when absolutely necessary, and which is keen to explore alternative approaches, it may not be being exploited to the extent envisaged when the legislation was drafted. As the EFRACom embarks on its inquiries, the question may be not so much whether the Animal Welfare Act has been effective, but whether it is being applied to best effect.