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THE Animal Welfare Act is 10 years old next week. When the legislation was enacted on November 8, 2006, after more than five years in the making, the sense of achievement was almost palpable, with ministers hailing it as ‘the most fundamental piece of animal welfare legislation for more than a century’ and Ben Bradshaw, the agriculture minister at the time, describing it as ‘legislation of which we can all be proud’.
The 2006 Act, along with similar legislation that had been enacted in Scotland a month earlier, streamlined and updated existing animal welfare laws, bringing the rules relating to pets more into line with those already in place for farm animals. Significantly, it placed a duty of care on owners and keepers of all vertebrate animals to make sure that the needs of their animals were being met. It made it an offence not to provide for the needs of an animal, as defined in the Act in terms of the Five Freedoms, with the aim of making it possible for enforcement agencies to take steps to prevent animal suffering, rather than only act afterwards as had been the case previously.
For all the enthusiasm, there were still some concerns. To be effective, any legislation, no matter how well it is drafted, needs to be fully implemented, widely understood and properly enforced, and this journal, for one, expressed concern at the time about each of these aspects (VR, November 18, 2006, vol 159, p 689; April 7, 2007, vol 160, p 453). 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. Soon after the Act became law, the Government set out a timetable for doing this and, although progress has been made since, this has often seemed slow, as exemplified, perhaps, by the fact that it has only recently got round to looking at updating the rules on dog breeding and licensing animal-related businesses (VR, October 1, 2016, vol 179, p 316). Also, wherever it can, the Government these days seems keener on achieving change through voluntary guidance and other non-legislative means than perhaps was the case when the Act was drafted.
From the outset, there was concern about who would be responsible for enforcing the Act, and whether sufficient resources would be available. If anything, this has intensified since, as the pressures on local authorities, government departments and animal welfare charities have increased.
It was also clear from the start that, for the legislation to have any chance of succeeding in its aims, owners and keepers would need to be aware of their responsibilities towards their animals, and how to meet their pets' needs. Unfortunately, despite the efforts made by animal welfare charities, veterinary organisations, government departments and others, this continues to be a sticking point, as indicated by successive annual surveys undertaken by the PDSA to assess the wellbeing of pets in the UK. Figures from the PDSA's annual Animal Wellbeing (PAW) report suggest that there has been no improvement in overall pet owner awareness of the legislation or of the five welfare needs of their animals in recent years, and that, if anything, the situation is getting worse. After a level of 45 per cent recorded in the first PAW report in 2011, levels of awareness were reported as 31 per cent in 2012, 38 per cent in 2013, 36 per cent in 2014 and 31 per cent in 2015. A figure of 35 per cent reported for 2016 again suggests that only about a third of pet owners are aware of the requirements.
Against this background, news that a new coalition has been formed to help make more owners aware of the welfare needs of their pets and their responsibilities under the Act (see p 448 of this issue) is welcome. The coalition is made up of a number of veterinary organisations and animal welfare charities, and it is to be hoped that, by pooling their resources, they will be able to make a difference.
The Animal Welfare Act was in many ways ground-breaking, but questions remain about how well it is being applied. Although it gives the Government more flexibility in law-making, there is also a potential problem in that, perversely, it might also act as a barrier to more specific animal welfare-related legislation: this is because it can always be argued that, if the Act were being effectively enforced, then, in theory at least, animal suffering should not occur. The House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee is currently looking into how well the Act is working and it will be interesting to see what it finds (VR, April 30, 2016, vol 178, p 430). Ultimately, the success of the Act must be judged not just in legislative terms, but on whether the welfare of millions of animals kept as pets in the UK actually improves.