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New rules on welfare

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THE Animal Welfare Act came into force on April 6, more than five years after work on the new legislation started. Described by defra ministers as ‘the most fundamental piece of animal welfare legislation for nearly a century’, the new Act, which received Royal Assent last November, consolidates and modernises a number of laws governing the welfare of domestic and captive animals, including the Protection of Animals Act, which dated 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 their animals' needs are met. By making it an offence to fail to provide for the needs of an animal, the new legislation 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 legislation is welcome. However, this is not to say that there are not concerns about implementation, and about how well it will be understood and enforced. Nor does the legislation's coming into force mean that the regulators' job is done. This is primarily an enabling Act, and its future effectiveness will largely depend on secondary laws and codes of practice, many of which have still to be developed and agreed. Matters to be dealt with include the licensing of dog and cat boarding establishments, livery yards, riding stables, 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 horses, circus and performing animals, racing greyhounds, and dog breeding. Some of these areas could prove contentious. A proposed timetable for dealing with these matters, outlined in an answer to a parliamentary question in January, gave an indication of the range of issues to be considered, and the scale of the task ahead (VR, February 10, 2007, vol 160, p 177).

To be effective, the legislation will have to be understood both by the public and those responsible for enforcing it. Initiatives such as the bva Animal Welfare Foundation's ‘What makes my pet happy?’ leaflet are helpful in informing the public about their duty of care to their animals; similarly, the rspca and defra have produced leaflets to inform animal owners of their legal responsibilities under the new legislation, while the Scottish Executive has produced a leaflet on the legislation applying in Scotland. Further information is available on these and other organisations' websites. However, it would be wrong to underestimate the effort that will continue to have to be devoted to telling the public what is happening or assume that the necessary understanding can be achieved overnight. The pet insurer Petplan reported last week that it had undertaken a poll among pet owners in which only 17 per cent said they had heard about the Act and knew something about it.

Regarding enforcement arrangements, the Government does not envisage that these will be significantly different from the current arrangements, in that any individual or organisation will be able to bring a prosecution under the Act if they believe they have the necessary evidence. Responsibility for inspecting farms and farm animals will remain with the State Veterinary Service (now called Animal Health) and local authorities. Responsibility for administering updated licensing schemes will remain with local authorities, although the Government intends to make greater use of self-regulation where possible as the new registration and licensing schemes are introduced. Meanwhile, the Government anticipates that the majority of prosecutions for a cruelty offence (as well as the new welfare offence) will be brought by the rspca and similar organisations, with assistance from the police or local authorities where necessary. All this raises the question of whether the Government will be devoting sufficient resources to enforcement; its draft Animal Welfare Delivery Strategy, published for consultation last November, made much of stakeholders and government working together to deliver good welfare, but the Government itself must play its full part (VR, December 9, 2006, vol 159, pp 789-790).

Ensuring that everybody understands the legislation will not be made any easier by the fact that the legislation applying in England and Wales differs from that in Scotland. The different positions taken on the docking of dogs' tails provides the most obvious example so far, but there must be concern that further examples will arise as secondary legislation and codes of practice are developed separately in the devolved administrations. Such divergence can only lead to confusion about which rules apply where and add to the difficulties of enforcement. Every effort must be made to avoid this, and ensure that the rules are compatible.

The new rules present challenges for the veterinary profession, not just on a day-today basis, but also in terms of the role it can play in helping to move things forward. Some of the issues were discussed at the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare/bva Ethics Committee ‘Quality of life’ seminar held in London last year (VR, September 30, 2006, vol 159, pp 430-433); they will be discussed further at this year's bva Congress, to be held in Belfast from September 28 to 29, in a session which will examine how the new regulations will affect veterinary surgeons and who will be responsible for policing it. The introduction of the new Act and the duty of care undoubtedly present opportunities to improve animal welfare, but there are important issues to resolve.

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