New Clause 3 - Statutory improvement notices

Animal Welfare Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 12:00 pm ar 26 Ionawr 2006.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

‘(1)Prior to any prosecutions taking place under section 8, the appropriate authority shall issue a person violating section 8 with a Statutory Improvement Notice which shall state the reasons for the issuing of such a notice and suggestions on how to fulfil the requirements of the notice.

(2)The Statutory Improvement Notice issued under subsection (1) shall require the person to which it is issued to make appropriate changes to ensure the welfare of animals which are in their care.

(3)Under subsection (1), the “appropriate authority” includes—

(a)local authorities,

(b)the police,

(c)the State Veterinary Service, and

(d)the courts.

(4)Under subsection (1), the “appropriate authority” does not include—

(a)private individuals,

(b)government agencies (except the State Veterinary Service),

(c)non-governmental organisations, and

(d)registered charities.

(5)Statutory improvement notices issued under subsection (1) can only be valid for a term not exceeding 51 weeks after the date of issue.

(6)Having issued a statutory improvement notice to a person under subsection (1), the appropriate authority under subsection (3) must offer that person reasonable help in meeting the requirements of that notice.

(7)Nothing in this section prejudices persons or organisations not mentioned in subsection (3) from offering advice to others regarding animal welfare.

(8)Persons issued with a statutory improvement notice under subsection (1) will have 28 days to accept the notice or risk being prosecuted.’. —[Bill Wiggin.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

It is part of the proceedings that you will want to know from me, Mr. Gale, whether we will vote on new clause 5. For a brief moment, before speaking to new clause 3, I want to remind the Committee that on the afternoon of Thursday 19 January the Minister said:

“On the possession of a recording”— that is the recording of an animal fight in particular —

“I outlined to the Committee some of the difficulties of criminalising the mere possession of an image, given that the possession of far more serious images is currently not criminalised.   I will reconsider whether it would be possible to tie that possession to an event that had taken place in this country. The difficulty of proving that was why this provision was dropped from the draft Bill.”

However, the Minister said that he would reflect

“in discussions with others, on whether it would be possible to make changes that would reassure hon. Members.”— [Official Report, Standing CommitteeA, 19 January 2006; c. 120–1.]

I hope that that is still the case. If he will just say yes, we can proceed, and we will not need to vote on new clause 5, which I think will be helpful to the Committee. I know that the Minister wanted to consider the possession of videos and films of fighting, and I am sure that he still does, as he mentioned it. I will happily give way to him if he wants to intervene. If he does not, let us give him a few more moments, Mr. Gale, and talk about new clause 3.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Ceidwadwyr, North Thanet

Order. All that was strictly out of order. I was hoping that the Minister might be able to reply, but he was obviously caught on the hop and I do not think that it is fair to ask him to respond immediately. If he wishes to give an indication during his response to new clause 3, that will probably also be out of order, but I will accept it.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Thank you, Mr. Gale.

Funnily enough, I suspect that new clause 3 is one of the most important parts of the Bill. I am sure that the Government would have wanted to introduce it, but as yet have not.

We are dealing with a new offence—failure to fulfil the duty of care. The new clause would ensure that anybody who fails in the duty of care receives some sort of statutory warning before they are prosecuted. The amendment has two purposes. First, it would give those in violation of their animal welfare obligations the opportunity to improve the welfare conditions of animals in their care prior to any proceedings going through the courts. In many cases that might prevent lengthy and costly legal actions and enable persons who were unaware that they were committing a violation of the Bill to change their ways without being immediately criminalised. If someone had unintentionally failed fully to provide for their animal’s welfare needs, it would be far better to give them the opportunity to rectify the situation than to pursue them through the courts.

Secondly, the amendment would ensure that only certain authorities could issue statutory improvement notices, and it would give them a responsibility to assist in fulfilling the requirements of an SIN. At present anyone can issue another person with a so-called improvement notice; for example, someone with no formal qualifications, knowledge or authority could do so. I could issue anyone with such a notice, telling them to change the way in which they treat their animal or risk being prosecuted. That is because I have a common-law right to prosecute others.

The amendment would not change or restrict that common-law right, but it would enhance the credibility of the practice of issuing improvement notices by empowering certain bodies to issue them as a statutory requirement. It would give those governmental bodies responsibility to go along with   those powers; as the bodies are either national or governmental, they are also democratically accountable.

On Second Reading, I pressed the Minister on written warnings and he stated:

“There is nothing to prevent the issuing of written warnings. We are simply keen not to dictate to the RSPCA and others that they should take that course.”—[Official Report, 10 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 248.]

It is true that there is nothing to prevent anyone from issuing a written warning. However, there is nothing legally binding about such a warning and it could easily be ignored. As the RSPCA pointed out in a briefing note, in cases where its advice was ignored, most owners would have followed it if it had been backed up by the potential for legal proceedings.

On Second Reading, the Minister raised the issue of the Bill being designed to avoid prosecutions, reduce costs, prevent cruelty and promote welfare and he argued that a statutory improvement notice would be contradictory to that aim. I beg to disagree. The new clause is written in the spirit of the Bill; it will save time and costs and help individuals to improve animal welfare. It would ensure that improvement notices were issued by an appropriate authority and that there was a statutory obligation to fulfil that their requirements.

If there are arguments in favour of the RSPCA notices, they may be useful as rebuttals. At the moment, the RSPCA issues non-statutory improvement notices to animal keepers. Often these are issued in what might be perceived as a threatening or intimidating manner. Anyway, even if they are well-intentioned and justified, there is no requirement to comply. The statutory improvement notice proposed in the new clause would place a compliance obligation on the offender. It would be useful if the Government were to guarantee that the RSPCA or any other non-governmental organisation would not be empowered through future secondary legislation, especially under clause 10(2)(b), to issue improvement notices with statutory obligations. The RSPCA’s table of amendments and comments shows that it is in favour of the new clause in principle, but is concerned that it will create a two-tier system of RSPCA notices and statutory improvement notices.