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Moving forward on welfare

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THE Animal Welfare Bill had a relatively easy second reading in Parliament this week. This is good news. If implemented and properly enforced, the provisions in the Bill should significantly improve animal welfare in England and Wales, and it is to be hoped that the rest of its passage through Parliament is equally smooth.

The proposed legislation – described by Mrs Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State at DEFRA, as ‘the biggest animal welfare reform for a century’ – seeks to consolidate and modernise a number of laws governing the welfare of domestic and captive animals, and remove some of the loopholes in the legislation as it stands. With the Protection of Animals Act dating back to 1911, there can be little doubt that the law needs updating. The Bill has been in the pipeline for four years now, during which time a number of changes have been made in the light of public consultation and prelegislative scrutiny by the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. The main thrust of the Bill has received widespread support during the consultation process – including support from the veterinary profession – and it deserves the backing of Parliament.

The proposed legislation brings the law relating to non-farmed animals more in line with that for farmed animals by placing a duty of care on owners and keepers of all vertebrate animals to ensure that their animals’ needs are met. In line with the ‘five freedoms’ developed in relation to farm animals, this would involve providing a suitable environment; providing adequate food and water; allowing the animal to exhibit normal behaviour; meeting any need for it to be housed with, or apart from, members of its own or other species; and giving appropriate protection from, and providing for the diagnosis and treatment of, pain, injury and disease. Owners and keepers would commit an offence if they failed to take steps to ensure their animals’welfare and meet their needs in an appropriate manner, which should make it possible for enforcement agencies to take steps to prevent animal suffering before it occurs, rather than only act afterwards, as is currently the case. In addition, 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 was unnecessary, which should leave less room for argument when prosecutions are brought.

The Bill proposes stiffer penalties for serious offences: those convicted of cruelty and animal fighting could face a fine of up to £20,000, up to 51 weeks’ imprisonment, or both. Other proposals are to increase the minimum age at which an unaccompanied child can buy an animal from 12 to 16, and to prohibit the giving of pets as prizes to unaccompanied children under 16.

The legislation would also ban mutilations, with certain specified exemptions. As a result, there is potentially an opportunity to ban non-therapeutic docking of dogs’ tails, but concern must remain that this may not be grasped and that, through the inclusion of an exemption, the current, highly unsatisfactory, position will prevail. At a press conference on Monday this week, the BVA and the BSAVA, along with the RSPCA, highlighted the problems with non-therapeutic docking and urged Parliament to ensure that the only exemption extended to the docking of dogs’ tails was for therapeutic reasons (see p 34 of this issue). The Government, meanwhile, continues to shy away from a ban. At the start of the second reading of the Bill on Tuesday, Mrs Beckett said she was ‘very conscious indeed’ that the docking of dogs’ tails was controversial. The Government was ‘inclined to support the status quo’ but hoped this was an issue that Parliament would decide. At the end of the debate, the animal welfare minister, Mr Ben Bradshaw, acknowledged that there had been ‘very little support’ during the debate for the status quo, but said that the Government was ‘still not persuaded’ on what was a very contentious issue. ‘There is still a dispute about the science involved, and many people think that it is a matter of ethics. We will continue to listen very carefully to the views of the House, and will take soundings about the issue in committee.’ Clearly, every effort must be made over the next few weeks to ensure that the Government is persuaded to take the right course.

An important aspect of the proposed legislation is that it will provide a flexible framework through which secondary legislation and codes of practice can be introduced, allowing the law to be updated in the light of advances in scientific knowledge and animal welfare practice. The Government intends to deal with a wide range of matters by such means, including 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. There will be much to consider as the new regulations are introduced and interested parties must be fully consulted. In this respect, it was reassuring that, during the debate, Mrs Beckett assured MPs that this would be the case.

New animal welfare legislation will present new challenges for veterinary surgeons; some of those associated with the duty of care provisions were discussed at a recent meeting of the Animal Welfare Science, Ethics and Law Veterinary Association, reported on pp 37-38 of this issue. Meanwhile, day-to-day practice continues to raise ethical challenges, as discussed in a Viewpoint article on pp 62-66. Whatever the issue, veterinary activity is pivotal to efforts to safeguard animal welfare, and the profession must continue to take a leading role in the debate.

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