Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill (First sitting) Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: HM Treasury
Legislation Page: Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill 2017-19

Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill (First sitting)

(Committee Debate: 1st sitting: House of Commons)
David Rutley Excerpts
Tuesday 23rd July 2019

(1 year, 2 months ago)

Public Bill Committees
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Bill Main Page
HM Treasury
Sandy Martin Hansard
23 Jul 2019, 9:15 a.m.

Q You raised the issue of a baby badger being skinned alive. There is some controversy about or question whether that would be covered by the Bill. Do you believe it would be sensible to review the scope of the Bill at some stage in the not-too-distant future, to see how well it is working and whether it should be revised?

Michael Flower: I think it would be sensible, and I believe an amendment has been tabled that there should be a review after two years. I am not convinced that there will be sufficient data in two years to do that properly. If the Bill were to be enacted in the next three or four months, it would be a couple of years before results started filtering through the court system. A review would be welcome from our point of view because there might be anomalies between the Animal Welfare Act and other animal welfare protection legislation, such as the badgers Act. If this Bill is enacted, we must consider how sentencing can be applied to other areas.

Claire Horton: I agree with that. The Bill is clear and has been introduced because of the recognition that animal cruelty is a serious issue. We would be concerned by anything that slowed its progress. It is fairly uncontentious, and I urge Members to get this bit through, and to consider issues of review and inclusion once we have more evidence further down the line.

David Rutley Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (David Rutley) - Hansard
23 Jul 2019, 10:05 a.m.

Q You have taken away my first question. I was going to ask whether our two witnesses agree that speed is of the essence now, notwithstanding some legitimate, and quite thorny, questions that we will, at some point, need to grip more fully. It has taken some time to get a coalition of opinion, but it has become clear to me that not only the two organisations that you represent incredibly well, but a far broader coalition, is now saying that, notwithstanding other issues that might be out there, we need to get the legislation through. Could you confirm that? It would be useful to hear the RSPCA confirm that time is a priority, and that there is a broad opinion that we need to get on with the Bill now.

Michael Flower: Yes, that would definitely be our view. Personally, I think that increasing sentencing is long overdue; it was unfortunate that that was not included in the Animal Welfare Act 2006. It is now clearly overdue, and needs to be implemented as soon as possible. The extremely narrow scope of the Bill should make it easier to push it through quite quickly, which would be very welcome from our point of view.

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley - Hansard
23 Jul 2019, 10:06 a.m.

Q Do you think that a broader coalition of welfare groups supports that view as well?

Claire Horton: Very much so.

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley - Hansard
23 Jul 2019, 10:08 a.m.

Q On behalf of members of the Committee, I thank you both for the outstanding work that you have done and continue to do, and for the support that you have given the Bill. It is great that there is such broad consensus across the Committee and across the House on the Bill. Great champions on both sides are pushing it forward, which is good to see.

We had a bit of a conversation about sentencing guidelines in terms of Anna’s important amendment, and views and concerns about videos. Are you convinced that the guidelines help you in your job and will have teeth? I have that confidence, but it is important for Committee members to hear, particularly from the RSPCA, that in the work that you do and more generally there is a view that the guidelines can be of assistance and are meaningful.

Michael Flower: They certainly are from the RSPCA’s point of view. Those of us who deal with prosecutions for the RSPCA will frequently refer to the guidelines because they give a clear indication of how society in the broader context may view these types of offence. The aggravating factors, which we referred to, are listed. Obviously, the more aggravating factors there are for a particular behaviour, the greater the likelihood of prosecution should be. They tend to give us a very useful steer.

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley - Hansard
23 Jul 2019, 10:08 a.m.

Q Claire, do you have any thoughts on sentencing guidelines? Are you comfortable that the way we are taking things forward is a useful approach?

Claire Horton: Absolutely, and I would agree. The entire welfare sector is of the same view. We are very comfortable.

In the absence of any further questions from Members, I thank both witnesses for their evidence, and move on to the next panel.

Examination of Witnesses

Mike Schwarz and Inspector Paddy O’Hara gave evidence.

Break in Debate

Sandy Martin Hansard
23 Jul 2019, 10:38 a.m.

Q Clearly, having a stricter sentence for that will also fit in with other criminal activities that surround dog fighting. I am sure that it is not a problem in London, but your fellow police officers in other parts of the country have terrible problems with hare coursing. Would you support the idea that it would be sensible to have a Bill of this sort that would help to prevent hare coursing as well as dog fighting?

Inspector O'Hara: It is not really my area of expertise. I generally stick to companion animals and the position on that should probably come from wildlife crime. I suspect it dovetails very much into Mike’s point around the disparity of the two genres, for want of a better phrase.

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley - Hansard
23 Jul 2019, 10:44 a.m.

Q Thank you both for your support today and for your very useful evidence. The question of guidelines and how important they are came up in the previous session and has come up in this one. Can you give your thoughts on the role of sentencing guidelines in how you deal with animal welfare legislation? Inspector O’Hara, how do they help with the cases that you have to deal with? It would be helpful to have a perspective from both you. It is clear that other members of the Committee feel that the guidelines are going to play an important role.

Inspector O'Hara: The guidelines play a very important role for any offence because they are the starting point at which the court will look upon sentencing as to where the offence will sit along with any mitigating or aggravating factors. It is really key that those guidelines are there and that they are robust. Having them in place will ensure consistency across the board, depending on which courthouse the matter sits.

Mike Schwarz: As you know, there are two sets of guidelines: one is the overarching principles for sentencing in all criminal cases, which I referred to earlier when I talked about harm and culpability; then, as has been mentioned a number of times, there are the specific guidelines of the Animal Welfare Act and animal welfare laws. I think they are very good, but nothing should escape review. It is important that it is reviewed with the passing of this legislation.

Earlier we heard that the point that when the threshold for custody is passed is now more important, bearing in mind the threshold goes up and the length of sentencing goes up. So far, the guidance is just in section 152 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, but the sentencing guidelines for animal welfare would benefit from some guidance on when the custody threshold is reached and what sort of sentences should lead to what greater lengths of custody. That exercise may throw up the disparity between the two areas, which is why I think a review is important and probably quite urgent.

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley - Hansard
23 Jul 2019, 10:41 a.m.

Thank you.

Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard - Hansard
23 Jul 2019, 10:41 a.m.

Q Inspector O’Hara, when the Bill is passed into law—hopefully very soon—how will it be implemented, and what about the deterrent effect that was spoken about earlier? From an outsider’s perspective, the idea that the cruelty sentencing could increase to such a large degree should have an effect. From your point of view, as someone who works in this area, how best will that be communicated to individuals who would consider abusing an animal? What is the best way of communicating the increased sentence to the general public and to those individuals, so that it has a deterrent effect?

Inspector O'Hara: Typically in this topic, media have been led and have focused on case results and outcomes, on the back of some successful prosecutions with high sentencing. I think there is a key prevention message that can go out before the legislation comes through. There is one thing that worries me slightly: I have not known many people charged with animal welfare offences to enter a guilty plea at the first hearing. I can see that there will be quite a lot of cases, particularly if sections 4 to 8 are charged, where somebody will elect to go to Crown court, so it will be some considerable time down the road before we get those sentences coming through, but you might find that the cases that go up to the Crown court get no more severe a penalty than they would have got in a magistrates court. We have to manage our expectations of what that will bring.

In my other area of work, dangerous dogs, following the legislation changes in 2014 and the 14-year penalty that came in for a dog dangerously out of control causing death, we have not seen significant sentencing increases as a result of that legislation. While the current provisions are very good, and we very much support them and hope they will come in quickly, expectations in the court outcomes will need to be managed.