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The UK’s Animal Welfare Acts become law

By Nick Mays

THIS AUTUMN, two new Acts of Parliament came into force in the UK which will change the face of animal welfare forever, namely the Animal Welfare Act, which applies to England, Wales and Northern Ireland and the Animal Health and Welfare Act (Scotland), which, as its title suggests, applies to Scotland.

However, as with any legislation laid down by governments, especially - those applying to animals – the Acts have attracted their fair share of critics, especially where the legislation can and does impact on cat owners and the cat fancy.

The Rocky Road

Described as the ‘most fundamental piece of animal welfare legislation for nearly a century’, the Animal Welfare Act 2006 passed into law when it received Royal Assent on Tuesday, November 7th 2006.

The key points of the Act – previously known as the Animal Welfare Bill - had been hotly debated over four years of discussion and amendment between both Houses of Parliament, with input from many animal welfare groups and hobby organisations, including the GCCF and Feline Advisory Bureau. The Animal Welfare Bill (AWB) – was first floated back in late 2001, and led to a wide-ranging consultation launched in January 2002. The draft AWB was published in October 2004 with the formal Bill itself published almost exactly two years later.

The AWB fell under the control of the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and was the responsibility of Minister Elliot Morley. It soon became clear that Mr Morley had no time for any voices raised in criticism of ‘his’ Bill and he simply refused to enter into any dialogue that did not accord with the Government’s grand design. Originally, there was talk that Mr Morley wanted to tie the AWB into the infamous Council of Europe Charter for Animal Welfare, which would have seen a crackdown on ‘extreme’ breeds of dogs, cats and even animals such as rabbits and rats if the Council deemed these to be ‘potentially harmful’.

Thankfully, however, this idea came to naught and Mr Morley was replaced as Minister responsible for the AWB by Ben Bradshaw in 2004. Following the 2005 General Election, Mr Bradshaw retained the Ministerial brief and oversaw the Bill’s passage through both Houses of Parliament and onto the statute books.

The law as agreed:

• introduces a duty of care on people to ensure the needs of any animal for which they are responsible;
• creates a new offence of failing to provide for the needs of an animal in your care;
• allows action to protect animals to be taken much earlier rather than have to wait for an animal to show the signs of suffering, enforcers will be able to intervene before suffering begins;
• places more emphasis on owners and keepers who will need to understand their responsibilities and take all reasonable steps to provide for the needs of their animals.

Animal Health Minister Ben Bradshaw said: ‘The Government believes that by extending the duty of care to non-farmed animals, it will reduce animal suffering in this country. This is the culmination of several years’ work during which the government has worked closely with stakeholders. The result is legislation of which we can all be rightly proud.’

The Act is due to come into effect in England and Wales on 6 April 2007, and is largely an enabling Act, which will pave the way for further rafts of animal-related laws under secondary legislation. But this is where concerns remain, as the ‘devil is the detail’.

Particular areas of concern relate to increased powers of seizure of animals by local authorities of their licensed agents, largely on the basis of ‘potential cruelty’ or where cruelty is ‘believed to take place’. Many observers believe that the RSPCA will inherit this role from local authorities and indeed, many politicians speaking during the various debates have alluded to the RSPCA’s ‘great knowledge’ in matters of animal welfare and their inspectors’ experience for investigating claims of cruelty.

Despite saying on many occasions that they neither sought nor wanted extra powers, the RSPCA welcomed the enactment of the new legislation. Figures released by the RSPCA in early November showed that, in the first ten months of 2006, the charity’s inspectors still discovered:

• 31,199 animals without access to water – a 59% increase (on same period last year)
• 43,544 animals not receiving suitable veterinary treatment – 63% increase
• 73,008 animals kept in a dirty or unsuitable environment – 61% increase
• 29,185 animals unable to express normal behaviour – 73% increase

In most cases, the advice given by inspectors led to improvements in the welfare of these animals.

However, up to November 2006 almost 11,000 people visited by the RSPCA had ‘chosen to ignore care guidance’.

Jackie Ballard, RSPCA Director general commented: ‘At last people will have a legal duty to properly care for their animals and the RSPCA will be able to respond positively to reported incidents of neglect.

‘Our whole purpose is to prevent animals from suffering at the hands of cruel or ignorant people, and this new law will help us in that mission.’

Keep On Showing

One of the areas that had caused concern whilst the AWB was being debated was that animal shows would remain unaffected.

There had been speculation that in its efforts of license or even ban commercial pet fairs, the Government would end up licensing all animal shows, as the wording of the Bill had simply lumped all such events under the generic heading of ‘pet fairs’, largely, it was claimed at the behest of animal rights organisations who oppose all such events.

However, shortly before the enactment of the AWB, DEFRA announced that whilst commercial sales of animals will be banned, pet shows – which the department continued to insist on referring to as ‘pet fairs’ - that do not involve the sale of animals, or that do involve the sale of animals but not in the course of a business, can continue without the need for a licence.
The move followed a judicial review earlier in the year on the legality of pet fairs.

The Pet Care Trust was one of the organisations that welcomed the news. Meriel France, Education and Animal Care Manager for the Trust, herself an avid dog exhibitor commented: ‘The bulk of the 10,000 pet events that take place often in village halls, at county shows or schools, are attended by thousands of animal lovers who use them to show animals as a leisure activity.’
‘Breeders and pet enthusiasts use them to compare stock and improve husbandry techniques.’

Home Boarding To Be Licensed

HOME BOARDING will be licensed under the Animal Welfare Act, according to DEFRA. The Government will pave the way for secondary legislation to licence the home boarding of dogs, a spokesman for DEFRA told boarding kennel and cattery owners last year. Speaking at a seminar of around 50 kennel and cattery owners hosted by the Pet Care Trust, (PCT) in Bedford in November 2005, Graham Thurlow said DEFRA was ‘mindful of the UK pet industry’s concerns’.

In drafting the bill, Graham Thurlow said DEFRA had been working closely with the Better Regulation Unit. As a result, current plans for secondary legislation include extending the licensing period for boarding kennels and catteries for up to three years, with inspections on a risk-assessed basis.

Janet Nunn, CEO, PCT says she was dismayed that her concerns about health risks posed by commercial home boarding had been” brushed aside” by DEFRA Speaking in a statement issued by the Trust, she reiterated the PCT strong stance against the home boarding sector, saying: “The Pet Care Trust believes that home boarding premises cannot offer an appropriate standard of animal care as set out for licensed kennels and catteries.

There are issues of cross infection, segregation and welfare that government need to address. It should not be left to members of the public to assess risk on commercial activity; that’s what law makers are paid to do.”
Graham Thurlow preferred the licensing option for home boarders. ”This is not a banning bill – our intention is to regulate where necessary. Mr Bradshaw is not a banning minister,” said Mr Thurlow.

Last year, OUR CATS reported how the PCT’s demands to ban home boarding had caused outrage amongst responsible home boarding businesses. DEFRA’s stance was a humiliating rebuff for the PCT, who had considered themselves amongst the Government’s top advisors when it came to the AWB.

Lock ’Em Up

Just before the AWB received its final reading, the Government was forced to issue a statement clarifying that there is the chance that the ‘worst offenders’ could receive custodial sentences of ‘up to six months’. It is unclear whether this a maximum sentence, as this was not clarified by the Government.

This statement followed a claim by the Pet Care Trust that DEFRA barrister Chloe Nash told a London conference on the Animal Welfare Bill in October that, back in July 2004 when pre-legislative scrutiny work on the Bill had been carried out, the Home Office had been ‘final and adamant’ in rejecting the idea of sending the worst offenders to prison.

The Pet Care Trust was ‘furious’ at this admission and said that the lack of power within the Bill to punish offenders made nonsense out of amending the animal cruelty laws.

‘This is not acceptable to the Pet Care Trust and its members and not to the people of Britain,’ said Janet Nunn, Chief Executive of the Pet Care Trust. ‘People in Britain want to see the punishment fit the crime and this will just not happen with the Animal Welfare Bill.’
DEFRA’s admission came within days of the release of a survey, carried out for the Halifax Building Society, which showed that 80% of people think there should be stiffer penalties for crimes against animals.

Responding to the PCT’s claims a DEFRA spokesperson said: ‘Legal penalties are a matter not just for individual government departments to decide but something that needs to be considered on a government-wide basis and in agreement with the Home Office.

‘The Animal Welfare Bill does include provisions for the worst offenders to receive prison sentences. The Bill provides the courts with a range of sentencing options, including imprisonment of up to 6 months.’

Festive Bill?
Just how the Animal Welfare Act will affect dogs and dogdom – for good or ill – will surely become clear after it takes effect in April 2007. Like most legislation, the AWA is well intentioned.

However, as Ben Bradshaw himself put it during an early parliamentary debate, the legislation had become ‘a Christmas Tree Bill’ on which various groups with MPs would hang their own interests. Thus whether it becomes the best Christmas present animals could ever receive or an unwanted and troublesome gift, only time will tell…

The Scottish Animal Welfare Act

LOCAL AUTHORITIES in Scotland can now remove animals from their owners and keepers if they believe they are at risk of suffering following enactment in mid October of the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act.

The new law introduces a duty of care on anyone responsible for animals, and stiffer penalties of up to 12 months in prison and a £20,000 fine for people found guilty of animal abuse.

The legislation had been discussed over many months by the Scottish Assembly and at times proved very controversial. One such issue was the complete ban on the docking of dogs’ tails without any exemption for working dogs, similar to that built into the Westminster Government’s own Animal Welfare Bill.

Libby Anderson, Policy Director of the Edinburgh-based animal welfare charity Advocates for Animals, broadly welcomed the new Act, saying: ‘We must recognise the significance of the change in animal welfare legislation, as of today. From now on anyone in Scotland who has responsibility for an animal will have to ensure that it enjoys a reasonable standard of welfare.

Enforcement agencies will not have to wait for evidence of an animal’s suffering before they can step in. That was always too late.

‘Let us hope that the new obligation on animal owners will mean no more ponies left neglected in fields, no more dogs tied up outside for days on end, and no more animals kept in conditions which are barely tolerable.’