Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Joy MorrisseyMain Page: Joy Morrissey (Conservative - Beaconsfield)
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Legislation Debates - View all Joy Morrissey's contributions to the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act 2021
(11 months, 4 weeks ago)Commons Chamber
I absolutely concur. I am pleased that we are all in the Chamber today to have this debate, particularly on the Government Benches.
Today, we all condemn cruelty to animals. The Bill will act as a punishment and a deterrent. However, I would sound a note of caution. The Bill, if enacted, should not become a tool through which land management techniques or the use of animals as part of our nation’s security are compromised. Further consideration of and guidance on these issues would be required. Put simply, it is not right in an animal-loving country such as our own that a person can get a custodial sentence of up to two years for urinating in public but only six months for dog fighting.
In conclusion, for the animal lovers of Wrexham, of which I am one, for the people who seek parity of sentencing across the UK, for the people whose lives are enhanced and enriched by the guidance and love of animals, and for the people who find it abhorrent to harm any creature in any form, I support the Bill.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, having heard many positive contributions from Conservative Members, many of which I agree with.
Can I make the mandatory pet declaration? Trevor the chicken has turned up in a number of my discussions with the Minister on previous occasions, but I can introduce Brian the female cat—[Interruption.] Yes, Brian—Members can see I have no career in sexing animals in the future. Brian the female cat turned up outside our house many years ago. In the same way as many other Members have described, when we see an animal in a desperate situation, our hearts go out to it, and inevitably we did what so many others do. This poor creature’s tail was barely there, its nose was falling off, but with love and care, that cat lived a happy life for many years. I suspect that many people across the House and across the country have similar experiences.
It is a pleasure to speak today for the Opposition and to offer our enthusiastic support for a Bill that we know is supported across the House but also right across the country. Frankly, it is long overdue. The only real question is why it has taken so long. It has been a long road, and many Members on both sides of the House have taken up the baton. It has been three years since the previous Member for Redcar, Anna Turley, tabled the first iteration of the Bill. I am grateful to the current hon. Member for Redcar (Jacob Young), who is not in his place at the moment, for the gracious comments he made about her.
The sense of frustration about the delay is captured rather well by an excellent piece in this week’s edition of The House magazine, which some may have seen. The League Against Cruel Sports took out a full page, and I will quote Andy Knott, the chief executive, whose account puts it very well. He says:
“When training as a young officer in the Army, our instructors had a wheeze to grind us down and test our resolve.
It usually involved going on a long march with full kit, and at the end, just as you thought you were about to reach the truck and return to barracks, it would speed off into the distance.
You would be left downhearted to trudge, desperately seeking said truck around the next corner. And so it seems with the Animal Welfare (Sentencing Bill), a simple piece of draft legislation that has long enjoyed cross party support, and has the entirety of the animal welfare sector calling for it.
Already on its fourth delay this year alone, it is a truck that nimbly manoeuvres tantalisingly just out of reach to those of us wanting to get on board.”
Hopefully, that truck has finally been reached, but he is right: we, and the animals that have suffered in the meantime, have endured a number of wasted years and false starts.
As we have heard, back in 2017, the Government tried to fit animal welfare sentencing and provisions for the recognition of animal sentience into one draft Bill, until the EFRA Committee strongly recommended that they should be separated out to ensure that the maximum penalty was available to the courts as soon as possible. The Committee was absolutely right to demand urgency, but how wrong it was in thinking that it would work. Here we are, years later, still talking about it—and, worse still, about to lose the vital protection on animal sentience that was at that time linked to it.
Under European law, article 13 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union requires Governments to have “full regard” when formulating and implementing policy to the fact that “animals are sentient beings”. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for explaining that very well earlier in the debate. Without equivalent UK legislation in place by the end of the year, animals in the UK will lose that protection, and I think probably very few people in the House want to see that happen.
The Government promised three years ago, after much pressure from the public and animal welfare organisations, to include animal sentience legislation in UK law post Brexit, but here we are with the end of the transition period almost upon us, and that legislation still has not been introduced and is nowhere in sight. We know from a wealth of scientific evidence that animals can think, feel, experience pain and suffer, and we know that we must adopt that recognition in UK law to move forward on animal welfare rather than going backwards. I was struck by the contribution from the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell), who is not in her place. She has had a rough week, but her account of the role that that cat played in her child’s life absolutely made the point about sentience.
We have since seen two Government Bills on sentencing fall due to the volatility of the parliamentary timetable in the lead-up to our withdrawal from the EU. I commend the hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) for bringing the measures forward again as a private Member’s Bill, but frankly, even this Bill is late, because today is the fifth date set so far this year for its Second Reading. It is very good that we have finally got to this point because, as we all keep saying, cruelty to animals is abhorrent and despicable, and it has no place in our society.
I would like to go back a bit, to the landmark Animal Welfare Act 2006, because that is the starting point for our discussion. As a Labour Member, I am extremely proud that it was a Labour Government who brought that Act into law. It was introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) long before I had the privilege of coming to this House, but I was involved in discussions with him and others at that time. I particularly remember pressing him on the issue of tethered horses, because at the time I was a rural district councillor and that was a pressing issue in my area. I was also struck by the comments of the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) earlier. He is not in the Chamber at the moment, but he pointed out to us that he had introduced legislation on tethered horses as much as 30 years ago, yet still we face a problem with enforcement.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the key issue of the badger cull, and it is disappointing that we have not had an opportunity to discuss what is going on in our countryside at the moment. Earlier in the year, after a long wait following the Godfray review, many welcomed the Government’s move towards a vaccination policy and away from a culling policy. Sadly, we have discovered that in the interim they have embarked on the biggest culling exercise ever known. It led me to reflect that on national badger day they were actually killing more badgers than ever before. Now, bovine TB is an extremely serious disease, and we all want to see it tackled, but we want it tackled in the right way. We want it to work. I do think—where have we heard this before?—that the Government should be following the science and the advice.
The Animal Welfare Act has been providing penalties for 14 years for those who commit cruelty against animals under human control, tackling cases related to dog fighting, the abuse of pet animals and cruelty to farm animals. But with the passage of time it is clear that updates are now needed and it is right that we should increase the maximum penalty for cruelty offences.
I was about to embark on recounting some of the awful cases that we all know about, but a number of them have already been referenced in the debate and actually just seeing them on paper and reading them is pretty upsetting, so I see no need to repeat some of them. However, it is important to point out that, while around 80% of the 1,000 people prosecuted for animal cruelty each year are convicted, only 10% get custodial sentences—a point that has already been made—and, although the maximum sentence is six months, as we have heard, many get much less than that, with the average sentence being about three and a half months. We had a discussion earlier on the Sentencing Council, and it has been pointed out that defendants who plead guilty at the first reasonable opportunity can have their sentences cut by a third, which means that the punishment gets smaller and smaller. The key to this, for us certainly, is that it is not a deterrent if the punishment looks so short.
Magistrates often clearly find themselves in a difficult position when faced with these kinds of cases. One told one of the offenders that he was extremely dangerous and that she would have liked to put him in prison for as long as she could. Another said:
“Due to your guilty plea you are entitled to a reduction of one third, to 18 weeks. … However, due to the circumstances we would, if we were permitted to do so, have imposed a far greater custodial sentence.”
So it is clear that there is a call coming from the people who are trying these cases.
There is clear support for longer sentences and I suspect Members’ inboxes will have been overflowing in the run-up to today’s event. I have had over 100 emails from constituents in Cambridge, and I am told that more than 68,000 people in total from every constituency in Parliament have emailed their MP asking for their support for this measure. The previous public consultation saw more than 70% of people supporting proposals for tougher penalties, so it is clear that people want it to happen.
The reality is that, while we do have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world, our maximum penalties in England and Wales are currently among the lowest. A substantial number of EU countries have maximum sentences between two and three years, including France, Germany and Italy, while Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and Latvia, all have maximum sentences of five years. It has also been pointed out that the six-month sentences are out of kilter with the rest of the UK. In Northern Ireland it is five years and Scotland is following suit in the same way this year.
So Labour strongly supports the Bill, as we have done all its previous iterations, but we are disappointed that it has been relegated to the status of a private Member’s Bill and has not been allocated proper Government time or reintroduced as a Government Bill. The shadow Environment Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), has written to the Secretary of State numerous times this year calling for the Bill to be expedited by the Government, as have a coalition of 11 animal welfare organisations that support the Bill. I am afraid that instead we have seen further postponements and delays; it is quite extraordinary that it is taking so long. That is despite the growing importance of this legislation over the past few months, given that we know that animal welfare support services are already very concerned that the covid-19 pandemic and lockdown are leading to a rise in the number of incidents of animal cruelty and neglect.
We have heard some of these points already, but let me say that the RSPCA reported in May that since the lockdown began, rescuers have dealt with a worrying 27,507 incidents of animal cruelty and neglect. A sector-wide survey led by the Association of Dogs and Cats Homes and the National Equine Welfare Council has further found that 14% of equine rescue organisations are already reporting more calls about cruelty to animals. Sadly—this point was well made by other Members—there is a correlation between animal cruelty and domestic violence. I am told that women in domestic violence shelters are 11 times more likely to report that a partner has hurt or killed a pet. This legislation is urgent.
Why have we struggled with these delays? The Government may well cite the current pandemic and the run-up to Brexit, but, frankly, those issues are just as real and live north of the border, and the Scottish Parliament has managed to pass the equivalent legislation this year, raising maximum sentences to five years. Put all together, I am afraid that—despite the protestations there will be from the Conservative Benches—it really seems to many of us that animal welfare is not high enough up the priority list for this Government. We are just weeks away from the end of the Brexit transition period and, as I have said, we still have no measures to ensure that animal sentience is recognised in UK law. Perhaps the Minister will explain how that is going to be addressed.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) for her speech. As she so powerfully pointed out, the Government have consistently failed to put into law their manifesto promise not to undermine standards relating to animal welfare in future trade deals. Of course, they will once again have the opportunity to do so in the coming weeks.